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July 1, 2020 4:30 PM, EDT

Is Density Related to COVID-19 Infection Rates? These Experts Say No

Manhattan at sunsetA view of New York City at sunset. (kasto80/Getty Images)

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Density is not related to confirmed COVID-19 infection rates, according to a study from a team of public health and planning experts and discussed during a webinar hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation on July 1.

The study is titled “Does Density Aggravate the COVID-19 Pandemic?” It was part of the Eno Center’s Road to Recovery webinar series.

Shima Hamidi, assistant professor of American health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-author of the study, clarified the difference between density and crowding. Density is a matter of physical space, while crowding has to do with people. Crowding, such as when people flock to beaches or bars, can still happen in low-density areas.

“Density is distinct from crowding,” Hamidi said. “It’s important to distinguish between the two.”

Hamidi said a possible explanation for the team’s findings is the conflicting roles density plays. She noted that, while density increases one’s contact with other people, those who live in compact counties generally have shorter and fewer trips to make in terms of day-to-day activities. Additionally, she said people in denser communities are generally better equipped to follow social distancing guidelines, such as being able to have groceries delivered right to their doors, and usually have better access to health care facilities.

Another conflicting role Hamidi identified is public transit, which many people have been leery to use during the pandemic because it is often a source of crowding. She acknowledged people’s wariness, but also noted that public transit facilities are usually one of the first places people start to avoid out of caution.

Reid Ewing, professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and study co-author, explained that one purpose of the study was to address COVID-19 in the context of planning.

In response to the virus, some adults have expressed that they have considered moving to suburban areas. Ewing suggested the commercial market, in addition to the residential market, might also be affected, pointing out that office vacancy rates have increased much more in downtown areas than they have in suburbs.

Ewing acknowledged that past events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have similarly prompted people to question whether compact developments are positive living options. He indicated the team’s study doesn’t suggest compact developments are poor choices.

“Compact places are a good thing,” Ewing said. “Planners don’t have to abandon the paradigm that they’ve been operating under.”

Ewing also noted the findings refer to early results, and said it’s difficult to predict how the virus will continue. Surges in COVID-19 cases have emerged in some states as they’ve opened up.

“As the COVID-19 virus spreads like wildfire in the Southeast and the Southwest, we would expect our results to get even stronger,” Ewing said. “We encourage others to do research on this particular issue.”

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