NM residents cut travel amid outbreak

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexicans have substantially reduced their travel to restaurants, grocery stores and parks amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to mobility data analyzed by Google.

In fact, they’ve generally cut their travel more substantially than people in Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma.

But New Mexico still trails the nation as a whole in limiting trips outside the home – well behind Colorado and just a touch worse than Texas, Google data shows.

The mixed grade comes as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham continues to tighten requirements for social distancing in New Mexico and pleads with residents to stay home for all but essential outings.

“We all have to do more to protect families and to protect New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said in a public briefing last week.

Altogether, the Google data estimates that people in New Mexico have reduced their trips to restaurants, theaters and retail sites by 44% and their visits to grocery stores and pharmacies by 18%. The data compared a day in late March to a baseline of activity for similar days earlier in the year, before the pandemic triggered stay-at-home orders in the United States.

The data shows New Mexicans’ trips to parks and workplaces are also down.

“I do think people here in New Mexico have taken this seriously,” said state Sen. Liz Stefanics, a Cerrillos Democrat whose district covers parts of six counties, spanning from Pecos to Capitan. “People out here are pretty good in terms of watching out for each other.”

The Google data is based on consumers who use Google Maps or share their location history through their Google accounts. The company says the data is aggregated and anonymous.

The movement data represents just a sample of its users, Google said, depending on their account settings and internet connectivity. It may not exactly reflect the broader population.

The baseline is built on data from Jan. 3 to Feb. 6. The more recent data is based on a day in late March.

A closer look

New Mexico health officials are working with a Santa Fe-based firm, Descartes Labs, on their own analysis of how well people in the state are adhering to instructions to stay home.

Dr. David Scrase, secretary of the state Human Services Department, said health officials need access to the underlying data to draw meaningful conclusions, rather than just looking at what Google released.

A particular concern, he said, is evaluating whether the movement data is picking up people driving through the state – a trip that isn’t useful for examining how New Mexicans are responding to the stay-at-home instruction. Google didn’t address in its report how it would handle such trips.

Scrase said the early data from Descartes Labs shows the state is still short of its goals.

“What we think we’re seeing is that about 60% of New Mexicans are doing a great job limiting their mobility,” he said, “and the other 40% are not doing as well. In order to limit the spread of the virus, we need 85% to be significantly limiting their mobility.”

The Google data, in any case, shows enormous differences in the mobility changes throughout the state.

Torrance County, for example, had a 24% dip in travel to restaurants and retail sites, according to Google, while Los Alamos had a 70% reduction.

But researchers cautioned against drawing firm conclusions based on individual counties. The Google data for small counties is likely to be less reliable because it involves fewer people and tracked locations, said Jeffrey Mitchell, director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the University of New Mexico.

Mitchell estimated New Mexico ranks 33rd nationally in reduction in mobility, based on the Google data he reviewed.

Torrance County Manager Wayne Johnson, for his part, said he’s pleased with the way Torrance County residents have responded to the pandemic. Calls for emergency services are down, he said, a sign that people aren’t panicked.

“Social distancing is kind of built into our way of life to begin with,” Johnson said in an interview.

Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, said she isn’t surprised Los Alamos would reduce travel substantially. The community – site of Los Alamos National Laboratory – is home to experts happy to explain the importance of staying home, she said.

“It has to do with the acknowledgment that facts and scientific information matter,” Chandler said, “and people pay attention to that.”

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat and former health secretary, has aggressively urged people to limit their contact with others to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Since declaring a public health emergency March 11, the Lujan Grisham administration has ordered the closure of schools and nonessential businesses, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, and banned public gatherings of more than five people.

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