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Data shows people slowly starting to get out more in Tampa Bay

Movement hit a low in early April then started a slow, steady climb in the second half of the month, GPS data shows.

TAMPA — People are moving about more in Tampa Bay.

It’s a trend some have seen and experienced in their own slivers of this pandemic, but is now confirmed by data released by the Tampa Bay Partnership on Friday.

The partnership, which focuses on economic issues throughout the region, used information from Google and StreetLight Data to measure travel patterns. That information was analyzed to see how social distancing and safer-at-home-directives affected movement in Tampa Bay during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Related: Tampa Bay residents growing more optimistic about the crisis but remain cautious

The charts show a decline starting around March 17 and plummeting over the following week. But the report hints at life slowly returning to normal as movement rises slightly around retail, recreation, grocery store and park locations in the later days of April.

The good news, partnership president Rick Homans said, is that after hitting a low in first part of April, the numbers then start a slow, steady climb by the middle of the month.

“This is the first time I’ve seen on a chart any semblance of us hitting the bottom and beginning to come back to life,” Homans said.

It’s a concept elected officials and residents are grappling with as they try to determine when is the right time to venture back out into the world.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the first steps toward reopening the state will come Monday, with restaurants and retail allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity.

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But when it comes to the start of the pandemic in Florida, the GPS data shows residents changed their habits before county and state officials rolled out official orders.

Tampa Bay averaged about 240,000 miles traveled in the first week of March, according to data from internet and GPS-enabled devices. By the third week of March, that average was about 91,000 miles a day.

The state didn’t issue its safer-at-home order until April 1.

“The public was ahead of the elected officials when it came to behavior,” Homans said.

The first half of April had a steady low of less than 70,000 miles per day, on average, for two weeks. That’s less than a third of the miles logged a month earlier.

But data from the week ending April 26 shows a slight uptick, averaging nearly 80,000 miles per day.

“We’ve always wanted, from the beginning of this project, to be able to identify when we hit bottom and when we started to recover,” Homans said. “I think these travel trends are in indication of that."

Ridership numbers provided by transit agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties show similar trends.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is using an automatic passenger counter to track ridership during this time instead of farebox numbers. The agency suspended fares last month to reduce common touch-points on the bus in hopes of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A chart provided by the transit authority shows daily ridership dropping from nearly 39,000 a day the first week of March to just under 20,000 a day the first week of April. The numbers have hovered in that range for most of the month, the chart shows.

“Just like the Tampa Bay Partnership’s data shows, April ridership seems to have flattened out at about 54 percent of our normal ridership this time of year,” Pinellas transit authority spokeswoman Stephanie Rank said.

Hillsborough’s bus agency also saw a steep decline in ridership starting in mid-March compared to the first two months of the year, according to data the transit agency provided.

March ridership started around 35,000 a day and then fell dramatically. Hillsborough’s average weekday numbers are down 58 percent, the agency said. That’s a drop of about 22,000 riders a day.

Similar to the GPS data, these numbers stabilized throughout April, hovering between 11,000 and 13,000 riders a day for much of the month.

The partnership’s report counts eight counties in Tampa Bay — Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota .

By April 10, most of the counties hit their lowest level of vehicular traffic, according to the data. Each of Tampa Bay’s counties has seen vehicular traffic steadily increase in the days following. This is likely due to a combination of looser adherence to stay-at-home directives and relaxed business and recreational restrictions in parts of the Tampa Bay area, Homans said.

“Personally, I sense a restlessness and an energy building up that people are desperate to move and to resume some level of normalcy and to see and engage with other people,” Homans said.

“Something could happen that just shuts everything down, or we could see these travel patterns spike very quickly.”

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