Customers are served outdoors in the Gaslamp at Rockin’ Baja Lobster, due to the pandemic. Photo by Chris Stone

A team of researchers has suggested a model of staggered public activity to sustain economic activity while communities still cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

The team released their research as most states in the U.S. experience a “fall surge” of COVID-19 cases, and San Diego faces renewed restrictions due to the local rise in infections.

The researchers developed and tested two strategies that, if used together and followed closely, they argue, could maintain economic activity while reducing transmission of the coronavirus – even by an amount comparable to that of a strict lockdown.

“Although lockdown and safer-at-home policies have been shown to be effective in lowering the number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19, governments in many countries are confronted by significant political, economic and social pressure to reopen their economies,” said Akihiro Nishi, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

“This research provides a basis for real-world policies that – if strictly managed and maintained – could accomplish that goal, while keeping people as safe as possible.”

The team – made up of researchers from UCLA, UC Irvine and UC Berkeley, along with five other institutions – used simulations to determine the numbers of people who would be susceptible or exposed to the virus, become infectious or recover under the effects of various scenarios.

“In the simulations, we assumed that people engaged in group activities in multiple sectors, including going to work or going to a local grocery store, where they interacted with others in the same group and potentially became infected,” said study co-author Sage Iwamoto of UC Berkeley.

They published the research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the first strategy, each group of people doing any given activity – whether students attending a school, shoppers going into a store or workers to an office – would be divided into two subgroups.

That means that a group of customers could only go to the grocery store in the morning, while another group of customers could only go in the afternoon.

In the second strategy, the number of members across different groups are balanced within the same sector, meaning, for example, every grocery store had the same number of customers.

Researchers tested the strategies by designing a computer model of their impact in a “virtual” version of the real city of Sierra Madre, a suburb of Pasadena.

Although Sierra Madre is a largely residential community, it has a wide mix of institutions where people congregate. That includes 1,812 businesses, eight grocery stores, 21 educational institutions, 30 medical and dental clinics, and 22 restaurants and cafes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The researchers stressed that both strategies would require active management, which would require public resources. More space would be needed in schools and other public facilities, and businesses would have to accept reductions in their hours and capacity.

They also acknowledged that real-world conditions cannot be controlled like those used in the computer modeling.

“One of the critical considerations for implementing either of these network intervention strategies is the public’s acceptance of these methods,” Nishi said. “And people in the real world may not be very consistent or rational.”

He added that the idea does have some historical precedent.

“In 1973, gasoline was scarce and rationing strategies were implemented, and people accepted them,” Nishi said. “Historically, people in the U.S. and other countries have accepted such strategies, which restrict individual freedoms in the face of an economic or social crisis, for the common good.”

– City News Service