Socioeconomic Disparities in Social Distancing During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States: Observational Study

J Med Internet Res. 2021 Jan 22;23(1):e24591. doi: 10.2196/24591.


Background: Eliminating disparities in the burden of COVID-19 requires equitable access to control measures across socio-economic groups. Limited research on socio-economic differences in mobility hampers our ability to understand whether inequalities in social distancing are occurring during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Objective: We aimed to assess how mobility patterns have varied across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic and to identify associations with socioeconomic factors of populations.

Methods: We used anonymized mobility data from tens of millions of devices to measure the speed and depth of social distancing at the county level in the United States between February and May 2020, the period during which social distancing was widespread in this country. Using linear mixed models, we assessed the associations between social distancing and socioeconomic variables, including the proportion of people in the population below the poverty level, the proportion of Black people, the proportion of essential workers, and the population density.

Results: We found that the speed, depth, and duration of social distancing in the United States are heterogeneous. We particularly show that social distancing is slower and less intense in counties with higher proportions of people below the poverty level and essential workers; in contrast, we show that social distancing is intensely adopted in counties with higher population densities and larger Black populations.

Conclusions: Socioeconomic inequalities appear to be associated with the levels of adoption of social distancing, potentially resulting in wide-ranging differences in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in communities across the United States. These inequalities are likely to amplify existing health disparities and must be addressed to ensure the success of ongoing pandemic mitigation efforts.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; access; disease ecology; disparity; economic; equity; infectious disease; mobility; mobility data; nonpharmaceutical interventions; social distancing; socioeconomic.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / economics*
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • COVID-19 / prevention & control*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pandemics
  • Physical Distancing*
  • Population Density
  • Poverty / statistics & numerical data
  • Salaries and Fringe Benefits / statistics & numerical data
  • Socioeconomic Factors*
  • United States / epidemiology