According to MIT researchers these are the businesses that should open first

In light of recent reports of surging coronavirus transmissions, experts are reassessing the most viable route to normalcy. 

A new paper authored by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology more discreetly identifies the transmission risks and social benefits associated with various public spaces in the US.

Their analysis concluded grocery stores, banks, dental facilities, and college universities to be top priorities as we tentatively enter shutdown easing

“Using mobility data from a large sample of smartphones, nationally representative consumer preference surveys, and economic statistics, we measure the relative transmission reduction benefit and social cost of closing 26 categories of US locations,” the authors explained in the study’s abstract. “Our categories include types of shops, entertainments, and service providers. We rank categories by their trade-off of social benefits and transmission risk via dominance across 13 dimensions of risk and importance and through composite indexes. We find that, from February to March 2020, there were larger declines in visits to locations that our measures indicate should be closed first.”

Risks were calculated based on the degree to which an establishment fosters social contact, how many hours people typically spend inside said establishment, how crowded an establishment gets at its peak, how many unique visitors it might encounter on a given day and the presence of disproportionately affected populations (primarily the elderly).

These factors were surveyed against the economic value of public space according to US Census statistics and nationally representative consumer survey data.

This formula identified cafes, gyms, sporting goods stores, bookstores, tobacco, and liquor stores as spaces that should remain closed until more promising data in respect to coronavirus transmission rates emerges. 

“We find colleges to offer a relatively good trade-off, but most have shut down, leading to a 61% decline in visits,” the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Conversely, we find liquor and tobacco stores to be relatively poor trade-offs (due to mediocre economic importance and small busy stores), yet the number of visits to this category has declined by less than 5%. Hardware stores are the location which has seen the largest increase in visits, as individuals scrounge for personal protective equipment and other home supplies.”

To be clear, the new report isn’t meant to be received as a guideline. The authors themselves note the potential for establishments considered high risk to make adjustments to facilitate social distancing.  A similar kind of limitation attends their calculation of an organization’s economic value.

If an industry has been shut down for an extended period of time due to state mandates, their traffic and revenue will be reflective of such by the time of this report’s analysis. 

The same is true for employment and consumer surplus. In the current analysis, the researchers effectively assume that all industries are perfect substitutes.

“Our binary choices do not yield information on the intensity of preferences, and leave out potentially important externalities from some locations (on mental or physical fitness, for example). Moreover, our survey sample size is limited, and further research should use a major survey research firm and larger samples. On the risk side, we fail to account for the fact that some locations encourage reckless physical activities or might disproportionately accommodate “superspreaders,” the authors concluded. 

The new paper, titled, Rationing social contact during the COVID-19 pandemic: Transmission risk and social benefits of US locations, was co-authored by Seth G. Benzell, Avinash Collis, and  Christos Nicolaides

 CW Headley is a reporter for the Ladders and can be reached at