Since the onset of the stay-at-home orders in mid-March, people in the Gulf South have shifted their movements considerably due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are tracking and analyzing changes throughout the region as we navigate phased reopenings, particularly in the parishes and counties along the I-10 corridor from Baton Rouge, LA to Panama City, FL. Our focus is to understand how current consumer behaviors are affecting these areas so that community leaders, businesses and organizations can make informed decisions.
Google’s mobility data uses the end of January as the baseline to measure trends across communities as the world pivoted from routine outings – such as going to work and visiting parks and retail outlets – to making significant adjustments to where they traveled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
As of July 17, destinations like parks and beaches are seeing surging increases in traffic, while there is still a noticeable decline in the number of people who are traveling to workplaces. This affirms that although individuals were starting to get out more for shopping and recreation at the beginning of July, they are still not back to work in the office. Further, with the renewed increases in COVID-19 cases across the nation and Gulf South region, we are starting to see regression in the number of people moving about in our Gulf South communities.
DINING OUT AND SHOPPING STILL UNSTEADY
Trips to retail and recreation spots such as restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, museums and libraries initially saw steep declines, and then gradual rebounds as we began reopening, but the bounce back has not been as steady in Louisiana in places like East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Orleans parishes. This is likely due to the case numbers going up once again in these areas. Orleans Parish, specifically, has yet to reach anything close to pre-COVID-19 traffic levels to these businesses and establishments. This is a stark contrast to places like Walton County, Florida, where people are visiting retail and recreation venues in recent weeks 25% more than they were in January; however, these numbers are coming down again due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases.
Grocery stores saw some slowdown but not as drastic as the retail and recreation category. People shopped even at the height of the stay-at-home orders and continue to do so, with grocery sales never missing a beat and, in most cases, up from the same time last year.
THE OFFICE IS CLOSED
People have not necessarily been staying home in marked increases throughout the pandemic, but they are cutting back significantly on trips to the workplace compared to the end of January. In fact, this category is the only one that hasn’t shown any significant signs of a rebound across the board in all parishes and counties we analyzed. Hancock County, Mississippi, for example, is holding steady at 30% below the number of visits in January. The number of people not going to the workplace is on the rise in Mobile County, Alabama, with a recent increase this week of those not visiting the workplace. The reason for this is two-fold: First, many offices are telecommuting in an effort to keep staff healthy and not in close quarters. Second, many of those in the service industry are still out of work due to reduced capacities or closures altogether because of restrictions.
Overall, Orleans Parish saw the biggest drops in visits to all places tracked and the largest increase in people staying home at the height of the stay-at-home orders on April 12. To date, the parish is still under enhanced mandates and the number of people out and about has not showed progress at the same pace as the rest of the Gulf South region.
SOME VACATIONS MAY BE OFF, BUT THE BEACH IS STILL CALLING
Beach communities have been the quickest to bounce back as people began hitting the sand in droves as soon as phased reopenings began. It’s an attractive destination because it offers the opportunity to enjoy recreational activities while still social distancing.
By the start of Phase 2 in Alabama on May 22, those going to a park or beach in Baldwin County, home to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, rose 121% from the end of January and 80% from the beginning of Phase 1 on May 1. Okaloosa County, Florida, home to Destin and Fort Walton beaches, saw the biggest decline in visitor traffic on April 5 but has quickly rebounded to 125% above the end of January levels as of last week. The number of visitors to Biloxi and Gulfport beaches in Harrison County, Mississippi is also on the rise.
We will continue to monitor changes in consumer trends in the Gulf South region, specifically where people are going, what decisions they are making regarding purchases and the impacts on which activities they are willing to engage in as we navigate this health pandemic now and for the rest of 2020.
THE GULF SOUTH INDEX
The Gulf South Index is a cooperative project between The Ehrhardt Group, a public relations, content, issues and crisis firm, and Causeway Solutions, a nationally recognized research and data analysis company, that are both based in the Gulf South. When the rest of the country may be zigging, we want to know if the Gulf South will zag and why, sharing that insight with you.
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HOW DID WE FIND THIS STUFF OUT?
We cannot comment on the methodology of the surveys and research we did not conduct, which is why we do our best to link to the source articles or studies that we share here.