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Study: Floridians returned to ‘near-normal’ social interactions in June

A waiter wearing a protective face mask to help stop the spread of the coronavirus serves lunch to a family in Ybor City on Sunday, May 10, 2020, in Tampa, Fla.

(The Center Square) – A University of West Florida study confirms what anecdotal observations suggest about the genesis of the state’s sustained COVID-19 surge: a significant number of people in June apparently believed the pandemic was over.

An analysis of cellphone movement data indicated Floridians increasingly moved about more in June with the rate of social interactions returning to near normal, according to the study.

“Our results show Floridians decreased social contacts before the lockdown, which supports the commonsense school,” UWF computer science professor Ashok Srinivasan, who led the study, told The Associated Press. “On the other hand, they did not maintain it long enough to avoid epidemic spread. Government mandates did not appear to help, either.”

Preliminary results of the study were released Wednesday. It has not been peer-reviewed and published in its entirety and is built from data collected from the tracked cellphone location of about 5 percent of adults nationwide who have agreed to have that information recorded.

The study documented Floridians had scaled back social interactions by two-thirds between early March, when the state’s first coronavirus cases were reported, and March 21, the day after DeSantis ordered bars closed and prohibited indoor dining at restaurants.

According to the study, interactions remained well below pre-pandemic levels into May, with schools and universities closed and many businesses shuttered and then slowly reopened.

DeSantis reopened restaurants, gyms and other “nonessential” businesses May 5 at restricted interior capacities in the first-phase of his three-step reopening plan. Bars that don’t serve food remained closed until June 5.

In May, Florida’s rate of positive tests dropped from 11 percent to 2 percent, with the number of new cases flattening then declining and daily death tolls measuring between 30 and 60.

By late May, however, according to the study, movement and interactions had increased significantly and “had returned to a level that would allow significant spread of the virus and were back to near-normal in June as Florida’s economy reopened.”

Florida’s average daily positivity rate for COVID-19 tests surged in June from 3 percent to 16 percent, and hospitalizations and fatalities also spiked.

Those trends have accelerated in July. The Florida Department of Health’s (DOH) COVID-19 dashboard reported 10,249 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total recorded since March to 389,868 cases.

DOH also reported a single-day record 173 fatalities attributed to the disease, bringing the state’s overall death toll to 5,632.

Since March, 22,644 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized, with more than 9,000 people currently in hospitalized with the disease.

In July, the UWF study documented, interactions have declined, especially after the state closed bars again June 26, and Floridians began to display behavioral changes that reflect awareness of the disease’s spread.

Interactions remain at higher levels than in late March and April, however, according to the study.

Srinivasan told the AP the study’s goal was to ascertain whether government mandates are needed to prevent social interactions or whether people will self-distance. He said there is no clear evidence of either.

“Decision-makers may need to work on getting people’s buy-in on social distancing and sustain it,” he said.

According to a Quinnipiac poll released Thursday, Floridians are ready to “buy in.”

In a survey of 924 voters between July 16-20, 79 percent said they favored a statewide order mandating face masks compared with 20 percent opposed.

Seventy percent believe the coronavirus is “out of control” and 61 percent said Gov. Ron DeSantis reopened “too quickly.”

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