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Wallets Are Already On Lockdown: People Pare Spending As Sunbelt Cases Surge

Bar owner Petros J Markantonis changes the marquee outside his bar to "Closed Again" at the West Alabama Ice House in Houston.
Mark Felix
AFP /AFP via Getty Images
Bar owner Petros J Markantonis changes the marquee outside his bar to "Closed Again" at the West Alabama Ice House in Houston.

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott imposed new limits on bars and restaurants Friday, one day after declaring he didn't want to move backward and shut down businesses.

But many people aren't waiting. Faced with a growing number of coronavirus cases across the South and West, they're making their own choices about spending, and many have already locked down their wallets.

"The virus is the boss," University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee says. "This is not a thing to be decided by governors or mayors or anybody. People have to feel comfortable to go out. And if they don't, they're going to stay home."

Goolsbee found that whenever the coronavirus death toll increased, customers dialed back their shopping and stayed home, even if local governments didn't issue stay-at-home orders.


Just ask Houston bartender Blair Ault, who has been staying home, except when she has to work, as hospitals in her city struggle to deal with a surge in coronavirus patients.

"As a bartender I do frequent bars. And I have completely cut that out," Ault says. "And I know a lot of other people who are — I want to say sensible — are making that choice as well."

Economists can now monitor those choices in minute detail by studying credit card data, online reservations and also mobile phone movements. Goolsbee, for instance, used real-time data to track foot traffic at more than 2 million businesses around the country.

"You have a pulse of the situation, pretty much in real time," says Antonio Tomarchio, CEO of Cuebiq. His company uses cellphone location data to track consumers' behavior.


Online restaurant reservations, for example, show Houston restaurant visits have fallen sharply again in recent days after climbing halfway back to normal in early June.

"If we start getting another big cluster of cases that turn into a rise in deaths, we could be in for another significant economic hit," Goolsbee says.

A test will come in places such as New York and Massachusetts, which were pummeled early in the pandemic but where caseloads have since dropped. New York City this week began to allow limited outdoor restaurant dining. Observers will watch closely to see if that slower, more cautious reopening avoids the kind of spike in infections that has plagued Sunbelt cities.

Businesses are also making their own choices. Some have decided to shut down again. Apple has temporarily closed dozens of stores in Texas, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and South Carolina.

When customer traffic drops, even businesses that stay open may need fewer workers. Hours worked in Houston declined in recent days after climbing for most of June, according to the scheduling software company Homebase.

Bartender Ault had told NPR she was nervous about working in Houston on Friday night and said she hoped people would stay away, even though that would mean reduced tips.

In the end, the governor made the choice, ordering Texas bars to close at noon Friday.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.