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Which businesses pose the biggest threat to consumers at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Researchers explored the risks and benefits of certain businesses reopening to the public

Photo (c) courtneyk - Getty Images
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect consumers across the country, many states are beginning the process of slowly reopening businesses. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from MIT is analyzing what types of businesses pose the biggest threat to consumers’ health. They evaluated nearly 30 different types of businesses and looked at their usefulness to consumers, as well as the health risks associated with reopening. 

“The idea was, how can we think about rationing social contacts in a way that gives us the most bang for our buck, in terms of meetings, while keeping the risk of COVID transmission as low as possible?” said researcher Seth G. Benzel. 

Where to go and where to avoid

In an analysis that started in January of 2019 and ran through March of this year, the researchers used anonymous cell phone location data from nearly 50 million cell phones to see where consumers are spending most of their time and where crowds are most common. 

The types of businesses were ranked based on their usefulness to the economy and the risk they pose to consumers’ health. Places that aren’t vitally important but draw large crowds are the kinds of places the researchers are most concerned about as businesses begin to reopen. 

Ultimately, the researchers discovered that banks, places of worship, dentists, auto repair shops, and colleges topped the list of places that provide value to the economy while also posing little risk to consumers’ health. All of these establishments are either large enough in size to have larger crowds be safely distanced or don’t draw large crowds.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are places like restaurants, gyms, liquor and tobacco stores, and cafes, among several others. Not only are places like these prone to larger crowds, but according to the researchers, the economic benefit doesn’t match the risk these businesses pose to consumers.

“It’s not danger per visit, but it’s a cumulative danger,” said researcher Christos Nicolaides. “If you look at movie theaters, they seem dangerous, but not that many people go to the movies every day… and restaurants are a good counter argument.” 

Reducing health risks

As more businesses begin to reopen nationwide, many establishments are getting creative about the ways they’ll allow consumers inside to reduce the spread of infection among customers. The researchers are curious to see whether their findings change based on these initiatives. 

“Moving forward, an interesting exercise would be to see how dangerous these locations are once you implement these mitigation strategies,” said researcher Avinash Collis. “Those are all interesting open questions, seeing which businesses adapt. And some of these adaptations will probably be temporary changes, but other business practices may stick in the COVID age.”  

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