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New Data Shows How Social Distancing Guidelines Are Impacting Office Occupancy

A new study found that people in states and cities that implemented social distancing guidelines stayed away from office, retail and other types of commercial buildings after the order.

But in states and local municipalities that didn't have such mandates, people continued to come into the office, risking catching the coronavirus during a global health pandemic.

Openpath co-founder James Segil demonstrates how his phone allows him access through an automated entrance control gate.

Analyzing cloud-based data from the nearly 2,000 buildings it services nationwide, Openpath, a Culver City-based proptech company specializing in office access and workplace security, tracked the occupancy rate of those buildings before and after city and state officials mandated a social distancing or shelter-in-place policy. 

The study is possibly the first of its kind that tracks the affect of social distancing guidelines.

The data from late February through the end of March found that social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have been an effective way to get people away from the office and other types of buildings, Openpath President James Segil told Bisnow.

Segil said his clients are owners of office buildings, retail buildings, houses of worship and industrial properties across 45 states and Washington, D.C. Though Openpath services multifamily properties, that asset class was removed. Some states were not represented individually in the data due to lack of sufficient data but are represented in the combined national data. 

In California, building occupancy levels dropped in the weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom began issuing social distancing guidelines and cautioning people to avoid large gatherings in early March.

After Newsom ordered the cancellation of nonessential gatherings the week of March 12, the overall occupancy rate in Openpath's client buildings dropped from 84% during the week to 33% the following week. 

Newsom issued the shelter-in-place order on March 19, and the next week, office occupancy rate dropped to 20%, according to the data.

It was the same story in New York.

The week before New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged people to work from home on March 9, Openpath showed a building occupancy rate of 98%. During the week of the order, building occupancy fell to 66% and then the following week, decreased to 22%. 

But other places such as Nebraska, where there is no stay-at-home order, and Georgia, where the governor just signed it, occupancy levels remained the same or decreased only slightly in March.

Openpath Social Distancing Index

Openpath's Social Distancing Index is only a glimpse of what Segil and his staff are seeing on a cloud-hosted network from people coming in and out of its clients' buildings. They plan to continue updating this study every week.

"Keep in mind this is just based on our customers," Segil said. "This is not a definitive number. This is more of an indicator. Over time what the built world is going to have to think about is what is the indication of social distancing and from there, re-evaluate and repurpose our real estate footprint."

The data comes as local cities and states try to flatten the curve on the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease. As of Friday, the U.S. has more than 261,400 positive cases of people with COVID-19. More than 6,600 have died, while 9,400 have recovered.

Segil said Openpath started tracking the occupancy rate on Feb. 24 when the Trump administration requested $1.25B in new funding to fight COVID-19.

Soon after, a number of cities and states began implementing social distancing guidelines and eventually, shelter-in-place orders.

With social distancing becoming a new normal, Segil said this could change how people work and visit retail buildings.

He wanted to prepare clients and others to navigate a new world post-COVID-19. This is also an ongoing study as the coronavirus crisis continues. He said his team is in contact with public policy companies, academics and researchers to expand the data set and welcomes others to join.

"This index will be a resource that real estate professionals both from an occupier and landlord perspective can refer to, to determine how to best prepare their space for the new normal," Segil said. "As social distancing policies evolve and regulation and compliance to those policies become part of our day-to-day fabric of doing business, putting systems in place to manage and monitor occupancy become increasingly important."

CORRECTION: April 6, 9 A.M. PT: A previous version of the story misstated James Segil's title. The story has been updated.