Are US Glacier Counties Complying With Social Distancing?

As a means of containing the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 800,000 people globally, social distancing is being ordered by governments worldwide. With two paradoxical words––social distance––officials are asking people to maintain a greater than usual physical distance from others to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection. 

The US government is facing criticism for its laggardly response to the virus, including its reluctance to commit to more stringent social distancing orders. According to a New York Times map last updated on March 30, at least 261 million people in at least 31 states, 82 counties, 18 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home––but not being required to do so. The US holds the ignominious honor of having the most confirmed cases of the disease, known as COVID-19, which has now killed more Americans than the September 11 attacks and has yet to peak.

Conformity with orders to limit movement has been correlated to success in containing the pandemic. GlacierHub examined the counties of ten US glacier states to see whether there is any association between the orders and social distancing compliance.

Using anonymous mobility data from cell phones, the Norwegian data insights firm, Unacast, created a US map to measure and evaluate whether people are heeding social distancing orders. The company created an interactive scoreboard, updated daily, to measure and understand the efficacy of social distancing at the local level.

(Source: Unacast)

Glacier counties tend to be rural and less densely populated. Though one might expect normal pre-pandemic activities to cease, dislocation from essential services might drive up the average distance traveled. Though some residents have recently fled from urban areas and have chosen to work remotely, most of the population are poorer and less educated, and fewer have white-collar jobs for which remote work is possible. Increased unemployment also creates more need to travel to social service agencies for support, though many services have banned in-person visits. A digital divide in glacier counties, exposed by coronavirus, is reflective of the yawning gap between US rural poor communities, where internet access can be slow or inaccessible, compared with more affluent urban areas. The closure of libraries has further exacerbated the technology disparity. With higher levels of poverty, residents of glacier counties are keenly aware of fluctuations in gasoline prices. The recent drop in price may incentivize travel. 

Since glacier counties are more sparsely populated, compliance calculations could be skewed by anomalies, such as a fraction of the population making long distance trips. Outliers would not have as significant an impact on the average in a more densely populated county, like King County, which includes the city of Seattle, and received an “A” grade. Low compliance marks might also have to do with the half-measures the US Centers for Disease Control and local officials have decided upon, where many businesses are closed, but also many essential services remain open.

Countries like China and South Korea, which have successfully contained the virus, took more proactive and aggressive measures to limit the movement of people. In the US, however, governments have been reluctant to completely shut things down, leaving room for outdoor activity and until recently, even leaving many national parks open to visitors. On March 23, Washington governor Jay Inslee said of his stay home order, “This does not mean you cannot go outdoors, if you feel like going for a walk, gardening or going for a bike ride. We just all need to practice social distancing of at least 6 feet.”

Inslee’s state was home of the first major outbreak on American soil, which included several glacier communities surrounding Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. Washington as a whole, which has seen more than 4,600 positive cases of coronavirus, received an “A” grade for its social distancing compliance based on a 40 percent or more average reduction in physical distance traveled. Counties bordering glaciated Mount Adams and Mount Rainier, however, received social distancing failing grades of “D” and “F”, with the exception of Pierce County, which received a “B”. 

Source: Unacast

Whatcom and Skagit Counties, the two which share Mount Baker and which lie within its viewshed, have grades of A and B respectively; these scores likely reflect the changes in behavior of the lowland western sections of these counties. The population of these lowland sections, part of the urbanized I-5 corridor, which includes Seattle and which borders Puget Sound, is much larger than the eastern highland sections closer to Mount Baker. In Whatcom, the city of Bellingham (population 89,000) is likely the driving factor behind that county’s “A” grade.

Poor compliance scores are not based only on the behavior of local residents, but can also be that of people traveling in. The rush to parks has resembled that of peak summer visitation in some areas. “People want to be able to get out and exercise and have some fresh air, but when they congregate together it poses a risk of spreading the virus,” said Matthew Freeman, an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University, in a post published by The Hill. “New York, Washington state, California have taken aggressive steps to try to contain the local outbreak, but people are leaving those outbreaks to go to places with less restrictive guidance which means that you may see the virus hotspots moving from some of these areas to areas where the guidance is more lax.”

Crowds of greater than 10 people within 6 feet of one another on the Angels Landing Trail on Saturday, March 21, 2020 (Source: The Salt Lake Tribune via Avery Sloss/ National Parks Service)

Hood River County, Oregon, received a “B” grade, the same mark as the state as a whole, which has more than 600 confirmed cases of COVID-19. “I asked all Oregonians, on the eve of spring break, to stay home and stay healthy,” Oregon Governor Kate Brown said last week. “Unfortunately, our trails and beaches were packed this weekend.” 

On March 26 Montana Governor Steve Bullock said “Individuals may go to public parks and open outdoor recreation areas, including public lands in Montana provided they remain open to recreation. Montanans are discouraged from outdoor recreation activities that pose enhanced risks of injury or could otherwise stress the ability of local first responders to address the COVID-19 emergency.” Two Montana counties share boundaries with Glacier National Park––Glacier County received a D grade for social distancing while Flathead County received a “B”. On March 27, the day after Bullock’s press release, Glacier National Park finally closed.

The state of Alaska, the most glaciated in the US, received an “A” for its participation in social distancing compliance. White Pine County, home to Nevada’s lone glacier, received an “F” grade for its part. Utah County, Utah, home of the state’s last remaining glacier, received a “B”.

Mount Shasta, California from Interstate 5 (Source: Wikicommons)

In sparsely populated Trinity County, California, home of the Trinity Alps with several small glaciers, movement of people is on the rise, earning the county an “F” rating. Siskiyou County, home to Mount Shasta, with the bulk of the state’s glaciers, also received a failing grade as did Inyo County in the Sierra Nevada mountains. There are more than 7,000 confirmed coronavirus cases statewide.

Idaho, which is home to more than 200 glaciers and perennial snowfields, received a “C” grade for its adherence to social distancing. To the East, the state of Wyoming received an “F” grade. The counties with glaciers, primarily in the western part of Wyoming, indicated a higher level of compliance than the non-glacier counties––bucking the trend set in other Western states.

Most of the glaciated Rocky Mountain counties, which form the spine of the state of Colorado, received “A” and “B” grades for compliance. Three counties northwest of Denver, which comprise Rocky Mountain National Park, are home to Colorado’s 14 named glaciers. The state, which has more than 2,000 coronavirus cases, received an “A” collectively. Colorado governor Jared Polis said, “Our generation is being called upon to sacrifice to save the lives of our fellow Coloradans and our fellow Americans. And that sacrifice is staying at home.”

Source: Unacast

Unacast acknowledged the average distance traveled from does not necessarily mean social distancing is being unheeded. “Travel distance is one aspect,” the company’s CEO Thomas Walle said in a blog post. “But of course people can travel far without meeting a soul or travel 50 feet and end up in a crowd — so we know that the real world picture can be quite complex.” 

The company is adding layers of nuance to its data synthesis. “We are in the process of understanding the best way to add layers that capture more of the complexity of social distancing: exploring how a change in the number of encounters for a given area, as well as a change in the number of locations visited, contribute to an area’s social distancing score,” Walle noted.

On March 29, The New York Times reported that social distancing measures in the Seattle area seemed to be working, “While each infected person was spreading the virus to an average of 2.7 other people earlier in March, that number appears to have dropped, with one projection suggesting that it was now down to 1.4.” If true, this also might suggest that the social distancing evaluation tool is a useful indication of compliance. The maps also reveal the difficulties in rural America’s ability to adapt and respond to disaster. 

Read More on GlacierHub:

What Glacier State Congressmembers Think of a Green New Deal

Glacier Counties in Washington Give Strong Support to Sanders

Of Sanders and Glaciers, Wyoming Edition

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