America is on the road. But is it on the road to economic recovery or a pandemic relapse?

Fans of On the Road — Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic of beatnik literature — will recall that its giddy, low-punctuation style is sometimes a little hard to follow. The same might be said of the data Americans are currently generating, some of which undoubtedly points to a rapid (if not quite V-shaped) recovery, and some of which seems to indicate either a second wave of Covid-19 infections or simply the continuation of the first wave.

The two are not separate stories, but rather a single, intertwined narrative. The best title for this tale was devised by my Hoover Institution colleague, the economist John Cochrane. He called it “The Dumb Reopening.” A smart reopening is the sort that has been possible in countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, which were so quick to ramp up testing and contact tracing that they didn’t need to do lockdowns in the first place. Among European countries, Germany and Greece have also successfully adopted these methods, which ensure that any new outbreaks of Covid-19 can quickly be detected, so-called super-spreaders isolated, their recent contacts swiftly traced and tested, and the outbreaks snuffed out.

Other signs of smartness are the persistence of behavioral adaptations by ordinary people, such as social distancing and wearing masks. We know that these practices, which can be adopted by citizens without any government decree, are effective in restricting the spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2.

Less widely appreciated is that social distancing is more effective as policy than lockdowns, as a forthcoming paper in the journal Nature shows. This is also the implication of work by researchers at Oxford’s Blavatnik School who show that there is no correlation between the stringency of government measures and containment of Covid-19. Measures designed to protect groups that are especially susceptible and vulnerable to Covid-19 — notably the elderly, especially those with pre-existing conditions — are also smart.

A dumb reopening eschews all such precautionary measures. So is that really what the U.S. is doing? The answer is pretty much yes. Testing has improved, but contact tracing is primitive. And social distancing and mask-wearing are least prevalent where reopening is happening fastest.

The economists I like best prefer data to fancy models. These days they are in clover because the age of the Internet and the smartphone is already a golden era of high-frequency data about economic behavior. When I say, “America is on the road,” I can say it with conviction because mobility data generated by Google, Apple and less well-known tech players such as SafeGraph show it.

Recent official statistics on unemployment and retail sales surprised economists, but they shouldn’t have: The mobility data were already pointing to rapid recovery some weeks ago. In the trough of pandemic panic, between mid-March and mid-April, Apple’s Mobility Trends (which track changes in routing requests to Apple Maps since Jan. 13) pointed to declines in driving and walking of around 60%. (For public transport the decline was 89%.) But since late April, the trend for foot and road traffic has been steadily upward. Requests are now up 12% and 33%, respectively, relative to January. (Transit requests are still down 54%.)

SafeGraph offers a more granular view of foot traffic, based on aggregated and anonymized smartphone location data. Relative to Jan. 2-3, Americans were walking between 60% and 70% less by the beginning of April. But in Dallas and Houston, foot traffic is now just a quarter below the start of the year. General merchandise stores, counter-service restaurants and supermarkets are almost back to where they were.

But perhaps the most useful mobility data for economists come from Google’s Community Mobility reports, which show how visits and length of stay at different places have changed relative to a Jan. 3-Feb. 6 baseline. By subdividing destinations into six categories — retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential — the Google data help us zero in on what matters economically.

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