Business Closures, Stay-at-Home Restrictions, and COVID-19 Testing Outcomes in New York City

George J. Borjas, PhD


Prev Chronic Dis. 2020;17(9):e109 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Introduction: In response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, New York City closed all nonessential businesses and restricted the out-of-home activities of residents as of March 22, 2020. This order affected different neighborhoods differently, as stores and workplaces are not randomly distributed across the city, and different populations may have responded differently to the out-of-home restrictions. This study examines how the business closures and activity restrictions affected COVID-19 testing results. An evaluation of whether such actions slowed the spread of the pandemic is a crucial step in designing effective public health policies.

Methods: Daily data on the fraction of COVID-19 tests yielding a positive result at the zip code level were analyzed in relation to the number of visits to local businesses (based on smartphone location) and the number of smartphones that stayed fixed at their home location. The regression model also included vectors of fixed effects for the day of the week, the calendar date, and the zip code of residence.

Results: A large number of visits to local businesses increased the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests, while a large number of smartphones that stayed at home decreased it. A doubling in the relative number of visits increases the positivity rate by about 12.4 percentage points (95% CI, 5.3 to 19.6). A doubling in the relative number of stay-at-home devices lowered it by 2.0 percentage points (95% CI, −2.9 to −1.2). The business closures and out-of-home activity restrictions decreased the positivity rate, accounting for approximately 25% of the decline observed in April and May 2020.

Conclusion: Policy measures decreased the likelihood of positive results in COVID-19 tests. These specific policy tools may be successfully used when comparable health crises arise in the future.


The New York metropolitan area quickly became the epicenter of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in the United States. The first test in New York City for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, was administered on January 29, 2020, with the first positive result not confirmed until February 23, 2020.[1] By the end of March 2020, New York City had 67,789 people infected with the virus, and 2,193 people had died from the disease; by July 15, some 260,176 people had been infected and the total number of confirmed deaths was 18,756.[1]

These citywide statistics mask a lot of variation in testing outcomes across geographic areas in the city. Some New York City neighborhoods (as demarcated by zip code) were heavily affected while others were relatively unscathed. There is evidence that the initial testing resources were more readily available to people residing in wealthier neighborhoods and that people in those neighborhoods were less likely to test positive.[2–5] In contrast, people residing in racial/ethnic minority neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods with a large African American or Hispanic population, tended to test positive at much higher rates.[2]

Effective on March 22, 2020, the state government issued a "New York State on PAUSE" executive order that closed all nonessential businesses, prohibited nonessential gatherings of individuals outside their homes, and limited outdoor recreational activities.[6] The business closures affected different neighborhoods differently, as the location of stores and workplaces is not randomly distributed across New York City. Moreover, although government officials did not proclaim a stay-at-home order, the prohibition on nonessential gatherings effectively compelled people to spend a large fraction of their time at home. Different demographic or socioeconomic groups may differ in their propensities or opportunities to adhere to the curbs on out-of-home activities. These differences in the impact of the business closures or out-of-home activity restrictions may have created further geographic disparities in testing outcomes.

This study merges daily data on testing outcomes at the zip code level in New York City with information on the number of visitors to local points of interest (such as stores, restaurants, parks, hospitals, or museums) and the number of people who limited their out-of-home activities. Previous research on the spread of pandemic diseases, including COVID-19 and the 2009 H1N1 influenza, emphasizes the key role played by spatial diffusion.[7–11] An understanding of the determinants of spatial transmission at the various stages of a pandemic is critical for the design of public health policies that seek to halt the spread of the pandemic or reduce the possibility of new outbreaks after the initial wave.

This study examines the geographic dispersion observed in the positivity rate across New York City neighborhoods to determine if the economic and behavioral restrictions imposed by the executive order limited the spread of COVID-19 in a dense urban setting. Such an evaluation can help identify which types of interventions are most effective in reducing the mortality and disease caused by pandemics. The evaluation can also inform the tradeoff between improved public health outcomes and the cost of limitations on social and economic activity.