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Florida was social distancing less and less, until its summer coronavirus explosion

Analysis: Cell phone tracking data shows in-person movement leveled off starting in June.

Floridians have hit a new plateau — in how much they’re going out.

In March, society came to a halt when the outbreak of the new coronavirus forced businesses and schools to close and led people nationwide to stay at home.

But, like most Americans, many people in Florida changed their patterns after about a month of lockdown.

People in the state began leaving home more and more. We know about this behavioral change because private companies tracked the locations of cell phones. Two different data analytics companies, Unacast and Descartes Labs, released data showing the same trends. The datasets don’t identify individual phones, but they show aggregate numbers for counties and states.

Overall, the data shows that movement among Floridians, which had plummeted in April to 90 percent less than normal, rebounded. By mid-June, it was back up to just 20 to 30 percent less than normal, a mark higher than any point since mid-March, though still below the U.S. average.

Then, the trend stopped. For the past two months, movement has remained generally flat (despite a quick bump over one weekend in July).

This is a measurement of the overall population’s movements. It doesn’t mean everyone acted the same way. While tech companies may know which specific people have been out and about more than others, we don’t. Some cell phone owners are likely traveling just as much as last year, while others may have quarantined at home all spring and summer long.

Taken as a whole, Florida hit the brakes on increased travel as it became evident the pandemic was getting worse. Cases and positivity rates surged in mid-June. More and more people began dying later in the month, and the official death toll (which is delayed a couple weeks because it takes time to certify and count the dead), began climbing by July.

Leaving home is far from the only factor fueling the virus’ spread. Wearing masks and avoiding public buildings or areas with poor ventilation, especially where people are talking loudly, limits transmission.

Florida’s wanderlust varies, depending on where you look. Residents have moved around and visited businesses more in Duval and Hillsborough than in the state’s other large counties. Duval has seen less of an outbreak than Hillsborough or South Florida.

Population density matters. It’s easier to move around without worrying about spread if there are fewer people around where you live, work or play.

Unacast adjusts for this by guessing how much the travel leads to close encounters, the easiest way for the virus to spread. At one point before the outbreak, the company estimated, people in Orange County were likely to run into each other more than four times as much as people in Duval.

Among the state’s biggest counties, people in Miami-Dade cut back in-person encounters the most, as of mid-August. Miami-Dade residents were running into each other 81 percent fewer times than they were in February, while that number for Duval was down only 34 percent.

The slowdown in humans milling about isn’t limited to permanent residents. Visits to non-essential travel and hospitality businesses in the state took the biggest hit, according to Unacast. Those visits were still 45 percent lower than normal for mid August.

Visits to entertainment venues are also particularly low (down 36 percent), and visits to restaurants (down 29 percent) lag behind those to grocery stores (down 19 percent).

Traffic to home goods and improvement stores, on the other hand, is normal.

Since last week, new COVID-19 deaths in the state have dropped fast. About 118 people are reported dead each day over the past week, a 35 percent drop from 11 days ago. This trend was expected to come, as current hospitalizations have been steadily falling. On Thursday, there were fewer than 4,500 people in the hospital with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, less than half as many as there were hospitalized in late July.

This is a weekly series examining Florida’s coronavirus data. Send questions or suggestions to ltaylor@tampabay.com.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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