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Staff photo by Tim Barber/ The Walnut Street Bridge recently reopened, one of several restrictions being lifted as people begin to get out more despite the coronavirus global pandemic.

Hamilton County residents are back out in public and congregating as much as they did on March 13, the day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and the county's first COVID-19 case was confirmed, according to data from the tech firm Unacast.

Unacast tracks anonymous cell phone usage in 50 states and their respective counties and compares that activity to its same level prior to COVID-19.

Based on the latest data, from May 10, Hamilton County's "encounter density" has returned to the same level as on March 13 — when the coronavirus was first detected locally and weeks before Gov. Bill Lee ordered Tennesseans to stay at home unless they are engaged in "essential activities or essential services."

When Lee issued the stay-at-home order on April 2, he cited data from Unacast — along with state Transportation Department traffic usage data — to justify his decision to shut down the state.

"We need all Tennesseeans who can to stay at home," Lee told reporters that day. "While many Tennesseans have made good faith efforts, there's clear evidence that some citizens are beginning to disregard safer at home measures. It's dangerous, it's unacceptable and it's a threat to lives in our community."

At that time, Unacast gave Tennessee a "D" letter grade on its "Social Distancing Scoreboard," which tracks changes in average mobility based on distance traveled, change in non-essential visits and difference in encounter density. Currently, both Hamilton County and Tennessee are receiving "F" letter grades on Uncast's scoreboard.

Mobility, non-essential visits and encounter density for both Hamilton County and Tennessee have gradually increased since their shared lowpoint on April 12.

Smartphone location data from the University of Maryland's Transportation Institute found that on that day, 44% of Tennesseans remained at home compared to 21% on May 8.

Additional data from Google's Community Mobility Reports, which highlight the percent change in visits to places like grocery stores and parks within a geographic area, found that Hamilton County's retail, recreation, grocery, pharmacy, park and transit station activity have all increased since April 12.

Grocery, pharmacy, and park activity are above baseline, which is based on activity levels during the five-week period from Jan. 3 to Feb. 6, 2020.

Social distancing is currently the most effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the state isn't alone in its social distancing failure.

The United States as a whole currently has a "D-" letter grade from Unacast, with Nevada, Vermont, the District of Columbia, North Dakota and New Mexico being the only states with grades in the "C" range. In the Chattanooga region, Bledsoe County and Meigs County are in the "C" range, with every other county falling in the "D" or "F" range.

Davidson County received a "C-" letter grade. The better grade was due to a 40 to 55% reduction in average mobility and 65 to 70% reduction in non-essential visits in Davidson County, whereas Hamilton County only saw a 25 to 40% reduction in average mobility and a less than 55% reduction in non-essential visits, according to Unacast's report.

Knox and Shelby counties both received "F" grades.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger declined to comment as to whether the Unacast data was concerning as the county resumed non-essential activities last week. Instead, he deferred to Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes, who said it's important for residents to continue practicing good hygiene, wearing masks in public places even without COVID symptoms, avoiding social gatherings of more than 10 people and avoiding discretionary travel.

"If you are a high-risk person, stay home and away from other people," Barnes said in an email. "If you are sick, stay home. If there are others in the sick person's household, keep everyone at home. Do not go to public places.

"It is important for everyone to fully cooperate with public health in our contact investigations, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine orders," Barnes said. "It takes all of us doing our part. Working together is how we reduce the virus' impact on our community."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.

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