Editorial: Our cellphones give us an 'A' for social distancing

  • While staying at home, the Ohlrich family waves to cars driving by during a "Honk and Wave Parade" organized by North Barrington Elementary School families.

    While staying at home, the Ohlrich family waves to cars driving by during a "Honk and Wave Parade" organized by North Barrington Elementary School families. Rick West | Staff Photographer

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 3/27/2020 8:51 AM

Take a bow. All of you.

You get an A for social distancing, contributing to an A for Illinois on the same attribute, says a startup that aims to gauge adherence to the new social rules for stopping the coronavirus spread.


Unacast's method is ingenious and unsettling -- the company uses your phone's location data to determine which populations have cut back the most on traveling from one place to another.

On Wednesday, most of the Chicago-area counties ­-- Cook, Du­Page, Kane, Lake and McHenry -- were pulling an A, indicating trips are reduced by 40% or more. Lake County led with a 50% cutback on trips. Will County had a B, with a 38% reduction in trips.

It's an uptick from last Friday, the day Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued the stay-at-home executive order that began the next day. On that day, Lake County had an A (take another bow.) Cook, DuPage and Kane counties were graded B for staying at home, and McHenry and Will counties were pulling C grades, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the Unacast model.

Clusters of counties in central Illinois and southern Illinois are making the A grade, but some grouped around Effingham County are a bright orange F on the map.

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Among states, Wyoming, with 24 confirmed COVID-19 cases, holds the only F grade, reflecting no change in people's travel outside their homes since the outbreak began.

Even a 50% reduction means a lot of people are still out in public. Some are doing essential jobs, like health care workers, police and firefighters, but others can lead to problems. If you can stay home and you do not, you are risking lives ­-- your own and the lives of others.

How does Unacast know where you are, or more precisely, where your phone is? The location data comes from game, shopping and other apps you've downloaded. In some cases, you can opt out of location sharing, which some people consider an invasion of privacy.

None of us has to ask the reason for aiming to reduce travel and stay at home. Illinois on Wednesday announced 330 new cases of COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus; three more deaths, in Cook, Kane and Will counties; and the spread to 35 of Illinois' 102 counties.


Health experts haven't weighed in on Unacast's approach. But if the company is right and a reduction in trips corresponds to a reduction in coronavirus infections, it will still take patience for us the reap the rewards of good behavior. Assuming a 14-day period when a person who tests positive can infect others, we're still in danger from people we encountered March 13, the day Illinois' known COVID-19 caseload reached 46.

It's now 1,865.

We have a lot of days of isolation before us. Let's aim to keep our top grade.

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