Strong Social Distancing Measures Reduced the COVID-19 Growth Rate
and Aaron Yelowitz
View Published Article in
State and local governments imposed social distancing measures in March and April 2020 to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). These measures included bans on large social gatherings; school closures; closures of entertainment venues, gyms, bars, and restaurant dining areas; and shelter-in-place orders. We evaluated the impact of these measures on the growth rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases across US counties between March 1, 2020, and April 27, 2020. An event study design allowed each policy’s impact on COVID-19 case growth to evolve over time. Adoption of government-imposed social distancing measures reduced the daily growth rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases by 5.4 percentage points after one to five days, 6.8 percentage points after six to ten days, 8.2 percentage points after eleven to fifteen days, and 9.1 percentage points after sixteen to twenty days. Holding the amount of voluntary social distancing constant, these results imply that there would have been ten times greater spread of COVID-19 by April 27 without shelter-in-place orders (ten million cases) and more than thirty-five times greater spread without any of the four measures (thirty-five million cases). Our article illustrates the potential danger of exponential spread in the absence of interventions, providing information relevant to strategies for restarting economic activity.