May 2020

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Building Occupancy Data Reveals the Extent of the US Lockdown

The occupancy data provided by our smart buildings is giving us visibility on what happened, and the same data will also provide visibility for social distancing and cost-saving measures to help us emerge from this crisis.  
James McHale
James McHale,
Managing Director,

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The US now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases, and fatalities anywhere in the world and most States are implementing strict lockdown measures to varying degrees. Fascinatingly, some of the best data we have on who and when people started isolating, is building occupancy data from smart buildings.

The following graphic, by access control firm Brivo Systems, shows the drop in building occupancy numbers state-by-state. The first states affected, unsurprisingly, those most connected to the outside world, but soon the whole country is forced to stay away from commercial real estate (CRE).

% Change by State

“The significance of these declines cannot be overstated. Our customer base very closely matches the demographics of the U.S. business population with respect to size and revenue distribution, which means that these drops in traffic will soon be reflected in the economic data for US business,” said Steve Van Till, President & CEO of Brivo, whose user population of over 20 million credentialed persons generates tens of millions of door access events per day across more than 50,000 locations worldwide.

The reduction of occupants in buildings has a direct link to economic activity. While people are discovering that work-from-home is very feasible, the way we were rushed into it and the fact that many people are now “home-with-kids” means that office work has seen a drop in productivity. Many more people cannot do their jobs from home. While occupancy drops in entertainment, general health, fitness, and worship underline that industries that depend on their physical space will face difficult times ahead and depend on government support.

There’s no doubt that some industries are feeling the effects of the lockdown more than others, but the occupancy data shows a significant downturn across all CRE access. The graph below, from access management firm Openpath, shows that gyms, restaurants, beauty salons, and transportation have seen the biggest occupancy declines. Along with educational buildings, dominated by schools that closed according to state policy. Activity in government buildings, places of worship, and CRE increased in March before all industries succumbed to the lockdown.

Activity Levels

Airports also saw a spike in occupancy levels at a critical time for the spread of the virus, a potential source of criticism for the federal government. Major transport hubs play a critical role in spreading the virus from one city to another. With more passengers flying into highly-populated, business and entertainment-focused cities, the chance of an outbreak in those places becomes much more likely. The result is greater lockdown and productivity decline in the nation’s business hubs, further deepening the economic crisis that follows.

“The lack of clarity in the president’s order to halt entry into the US from Europe – which at first seemed to apply to US citizens as well as foreign nationals – led to crushing crowds at airports where unscreened infected passengers could easily transit the disease to others,” said Anthony Zurcher, North America reporter for the BBC. “Decisions like those may have had dire consequences, hampering efforts to contain the spread of the disease throughout the nation – the public health equivalent of throwing petrol on an already raging fire.”

The graph below from Brivo shows building occupancy levels by city, highlighting that the largest cities in the US have been hit hardest by the virus and subsequent lockdowns. With an 80% decrease in CRE occupancy, NYC tops the list of the most impacted cities urban areas. Still, many major “business cities” are seeing decreases of more than 50%, raising serious economic concerns.

Highlight by city

Reliable Controls “It’s amazing that it’s happening to so much of the world’s population at the same time. Absolutely, unprecedented. I have never seen foot traffic drops as we’ve seen over the last four to six weeks,” Andrew Farah, CEO of people counting specialists Density, told Memoori in a soon to be published interview. “We have been conducting some network-wide data research, in the airline industry, for example, and saw an 85% drop in foot traffic week over week, even single-digit headcounts in some parts of some airports. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

It is not until the number of coronavirus fatalities rises that the general public will voluntarily lockdown, compelled to act for the greater good. To avoid reaching those high-numbers, citizens depend on their government to pre-emptively act for the greater good. Where that greater good lies in the ongoing debate between public health and the economy is another question. The occupancy data provided by our smart buildings is giving us visibility on what happened, and the same data will also provide visibility for social distancing and cost-saving measures to help us emerge from this crisis.  


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