Sun Belt Research Note

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Shiva Teerdhala (University of Pennsylvania) , Derek Duba (Arizona State University)

In the United States, COVID-19 first spread in urban areas such as the Northeastern Boston-Washington corridor and California. During the initial phase of the pandemic, the U.S. recorded a peak of 36,738 new cases on April 24th.1 Thankfully, strict lockdowns managed to control those outbreaks by early June. However, the lack of a national policy response combined with rapid reopening in the Sun Belt (the region extending from Florida and Georgia to Southern California), presented favorable circumstances for a second, larger coronavirus surge, unlike in many other nations.2 Indeed, the performance against coronavirus in the United States contrasts with developed countries in the EU, which successfully controlled COVID-19 following peaks in mid-March.3 Since June 27th, when cases increased by 45,255 in a single day, the U.S. has seen consecutive days of record-breaking, non-peak increases, with 250,000 new cases in the first five days of July alone.4 Florida, Texas, and Arizona, the largest and most populated Sun Belt states, account for the majority of this surge.5 In terms of policies, these states reopened much more rapidly and aggressively than the Northeast because they initially faced few cases of COVID-19 while other areas suffered. However, reopening policies are not the only factors causing the current COVID-19 surge.

Continuous aversion to COVID-19 guidelines, like social distancing and mask recommendations, especially in the South, has had a chillingly consequential impact on the pandemic. The Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Report is an expansive dataset charting the physical movement of individuals during the pandemic, as compared to pre-pandemic levels.6 These visualizations from Memorial Day 2020 demonstrate that large regions of the Sun Belt (red and gray-shaded counties) exhibited relatively small percent change in time spent at home versus pre-pandemic (Figures 1 and 2).