As different regions and countries are easing lockdown restrictions put in place to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the result in many cases has been, unfortunately, a rise in infections as people once again go about their daily lives. This has called into question the wisdom of easing lockdown too quickly. Ultimately, a vaccine for COVID-19 is needed in order to more fully reduce the restrictive measures in places, such as social distancing and limited capacity places and business can have. In the meantime, GIS can help greatly in planning how to more safely open up businesses and recreational areas by using spatial analysis to implement proper social distancing protocols and estimating capacity.
Analyzing Beach Capacity When Social Distancing With GIS
One scene that has become familiar as lockdown has eased is that beaches across the United States and parts of Europe have become crowded again. Using aerial imagery and simple area calculations of beaches can help authorities determine what is a likely safe number of families or groups that a beach can hold so that people can adequately maintain social distancing but still have access to enjoy facilities in beaches and large public places. In the UK, Esri UK carried out an analysis of beaches and found that beaches such as in Bournemouth, in southern England, could reasonably accommodate 78,000 people, whereas some estimates recently showed that nearly a half million people came to the beach as lockdown eased. In other words, authorities could benefit by using estimates for social distancing that incorporate approximately 2-meters, or about six feet, between individuals in determining how many people should be let in to access a given beach. It was argued that using such estimates for popular places that are likely to attract large numbers of people should have clear capacity limits and authorities should use social distancing to calculate the numbers they accommodate given the spatial dimensions and total area for beaches. This would then help prevent or at least limit large gatherings from becoming potentially super spreader events that can rapidly lead to a rise in infection rates.
Mapping Sidewalk Widths to Determine Social Distancing Capabilities
In another study by Esri UK, sidewalk widths have been found to be a potential problem as lockdown is eased and more foot traffic becomes evident. It was found, for instance, that 34% of sidewalks in the UK do not adequately allow for social distancing to be practiced, while another 36% are barely adequate, using the 2-meter or 6 foot guideline, since these sidewalks are narrower than the prescribed width need to practice social distancing.
Using GIS to Manage Park Visitors in Tennessee
In Tennessee, GIS has been already used for policy decisions. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, this has now increased to planning for how the state is opening up. For instance, when state parks opened in Tennessee, it was noticed that a large influx of people came to visit, prompting concerns. The state has developed a web application using a GIS data interface that allows park managers to track data they can input and conduct basic spatial analysis, such as on park visitors, using real-time data. The data can also be layered with contacting tracing data. The web applications also allow supply concerns to be monitored, such as PPE and cleaning products being available at state parks. That data can be used then to monitor if given parks can handle the volume of people and if enough cleaning or safety supplies are present given the expected volume of people for given days. The state used GIS to determine that it was not safe to open the parks during the month of June, as the GIS data suggested parks could not handle the expected crowds and adequately supply safety concerns. Given the importance of using GIS for future decision-making at the state level in relation to parks, the state is now also working to integrate GIS web platforms for their main site on state parks (https://tnstateparks.com/).
Using GIS to Track COVID-19 Presence in Wastewater
In Tempe, Arizona, GIS has become central to the city’s decision-making process. It has now used testing results from waste water, which is seen as a form of mass testing for the COVID-19 virus presence and rate detection, and integrated the data with the city’s GIS system in order to help with decision-making. The intent is to not only use this to monitor COVID-19 in the city, particularly as cases rise in Arizona, but the lessons learned could enable the city to expand using GIS in monitoring other diseases in the future, particularly as mass testing and decisions have to be closely linked and making decisions from testing have to be done sometimes in real-time. (Related: Testing Sewage Can Predict COVID-19 Spikes)
We are seeing, at least in some places, the use of GIS to help regions begin to ease lockdown sensibly. We have seen that easing lockdown too quickly, and perhaps without adequate data, have led to a resurgence of COVID-19 infections. With the use of GIS and spatial analysis, it is possible to limit the impact of infections and make better decisions about what steps can be undertaken to ease restrictions at least until a vaccine for the virus becomes widely available.
 For more on Esri investigation into beaches in the UK and how many people could be reasonably accommodated, see: https://www.geospatialpr.com/2020/07/02/esri-uk-analysis-reveals-beach-capacity-ahead-of-holiday-season/.
 For more on the Esri sidewalk study, see: https://www.geospatialpr.com/2020/06/05/map-of-pavement-widths-helps-local-authorities-with-social-distancing-plans/
 For more on Tennessee using GIS to decide about the safety of state park openings, see: https://gcn.com/articles/2020/06/11/tennessee-parks-gis-covid.aspx
 For more on Tempe’s use of GIS and COVID-19 testing, see: https://www.esri.com/about/newsroom/blog/covid-19-tempe-tests-wastewater/