Covid-19 can be a deadly virus, but that should not blind us to the reality that the pandemic and its associated shutdowns have had other bad effects too. Prolonged and severe state quarantine policies not only did little to stop transmission of the virus but also led to a mass exodus of residents, an uptick in crime, and a severe deterioration in mental health. But some cities have recovered much faster than others and experienced much weaker deteriorations in their economic and social flourishing. Why?
Recent research that I conducted with Huggy Rao at Stanford University and Sunasir Dutta at University of Minnesota may help answer. We introduce a new measure of social capital, called “Third Places Foot-traffic Concentration” (TPFC), and use it to examine how counties fared over the Covid-19 pandemic. Using anonymized cell-phone-location data, we track the composition and frequency of visits to “third places”—cafes, diners, or restaurants, destinations that provide a neutral ground for strangers to interact and expose people to a wider set of influences. While researchers have long been interested in third places as catalysts for social capital, past research has struggled to measure these interactions at scale.
We find that counties with higher levels of TPFC saw fewer personal bankruptcies, Covid infections, and Covid deaths. Moving a county roughly one standard deviation in the TPFC index—which amounts to rising from roughly the tenth percentile to below the median in the distribution of our 1,136 counties—is associated with a 0.43 percent decline in personal bankruptcies, a 0.39 percent decline in Covid-19 infections, and a 0.30 percent decline in Covid-19 deaths. These results obtain even after controlling for many demographic differences.
Social interaction may matter more in some locations than in others. A rise in TPFC has a larger effect on personal bankruptcy in counties that are more racially heterogenous (30 percent) and have less income inequality (40 percent). In other words, social interaction in highly homogenous areas was associated with fewer benefits; the same holds for Covid-19 outcomes.
These results corroborate other research that has found, using a measure from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, that social capital provided a buffer against the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths during the height of the pandemic. But our measure of TPFC supervenes upon social interaction—exactly what state quarantines were intended to stop. In this sense, our results not only are consistent with past evidence about the ineffectiveness of state quarantine policies but also suggest that social interaction has beneficial effects on net.
Many cities faced significant challenges before the pandemic, but state and local policies made the situation worse. Recovering from the pandemic requires interaction, not isolation.
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