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Puerto Rico consumers relax behavior beyond COVID-19 restrictions to shop, go to work

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An analytical report by Estudios Técnicos Inc. that correlates the Executive Orders on the pandemic and the mobility index concluded that consumers have already eased their behavior when going out shopping, to work and recreation spaces beyond the government’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“The challenge for the government, private companies and citizens is to control the pandemic and provide a safe environment so we can go back to ‘normalcy,’ said Estudios Técnicos President Graham Castillo.

“Otherwise, we must expect an increase in infections, and with it the possible return to the strictest orders and consumers who will reduce their mobility ‘of their own accord.’ This would manifest itself in a contraction in consumer spending in stores and high-risk spaces,” he said.

“It would also delay the opening of group activities such as going back to school, and to recreational and entertainment events,” he said.

Estudios Técnicos’ analysis took into account Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which keep track of mobile phone connections, and outings to places such as supermarkets, restaurants, workplaces and parks, among others.

Estudios Técnicos correlated the occupancy parameters with the government-mandated COVID-10 Executive Orders as of March 15, 2020. The data shows that the initial “lockdown” order severely limited mobility, but, with the easing of the Executive Orders, during the following months consumers increased their mobility to relatively high levels.

“Mobility trends suggest that, once executive order restrictions are relaxed, over time consumer behavior is determining mobility trends toward businesses or evaluated activities,” Castillo said.

“So, the Executive Orders and mobility have been dissociated. Given this level of mobility, it’s foreseeable to expect an increase in infections if citizens don’t take the necessary safety measures recommended by health authorities,” he added.

“Our concern is that if infections increase, we shouldn’t expect an increase in mobility and recovery from certain consumer activities. This underscores the need to intensify the comprehensive approach to the pandemic while achieving herd immunity through vaccination, if the economic consequences of the pandemic are to be minimized,” said Castillo.

The report is a mobility indicator that, while it does not reflect sales, it is an approximation that shows how people have or have not changed their behavior since March. There are many factors that affect mobility.

For example, the indicator does not allow differentiating between types of transactions or changes in their nature, such as going to get food at a restaurant vs. consuming it on the spot.

“However, it’s useful to have a mobility indicator to understand the changes that the pandemic has had on people’s movement since March 2020, since it’s reasonable to expect that mobility is related to economic activity,” Castillo said.

The first executive orders resulted in a drastic reduction in mobility. During the first order that took effect Mar. 15, 2020, pharmacies and grocery stores reported an average mobility of just over half their allowable capacity and 54% of their pre-COVID-19 level.

Restaurants and retail stores were down to about a quarter of their pre-COVID-19 mobility, even as the executive order allowed more than a third of capacity. Presence at workplaces were significantly reduced, but still above the average capacity allowed.

On the other hand, no significant changes were observed in mobility among categories during the Executive Order that took effect on June 13, 2020. Apart from the mobility reduction peaks of July 19 and Aug. 20, the multiple changes in Executive Orders have not altered the new mobility trend, Estudios Técnicos concluded.

Nearly all of the categories approached and remained at between 80% and 90% mobility during these periods, including activity at restaurants that, even without additional flexibility, saw a considerable increase in mobility.

“Measuring the effectiveness of the Executive Order is a very difficult exercise with this mobility indicator alone,” Castillo said. “There are other metrics for this that are used in the field of epidemiology, such as the positivity rate, and hospitalizations, among others.”

“The purpose of the analysis is to identify how mobility has behaved in certain spaces in the face of capacity restrictions. We see that mobility isn’t only influenced by Executive Orders, but also by individuals and companies for their determination to assume the risk associated with a behavior that results in greater mobility and social interaction,” the economist said.

Castillo said that beyond the Executive Orders, it is reasonable to argue that many citizens decided to quarantine when they perceived the danger of COVID-19. The risk for businesses is that they would do it again if the danger of contagion grows, whether or not there are Executive Orders in place.

He predicted that any increase in consumer risk perception would seriously affect the economy and reaching that point should be avoided due to the sustainability of thousands of businesses that could be classified by health authorities as high-risk spaces, as happened when the operating capacity of shopping centers, restaurants, certain employment centers and others was limited.

“This is particularly relevant to the emergence of more contagious and dangerous variants of the virus,” he said.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.
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