Business disruptions from social distancing

Miklós Koren and Rita Pető

September 2020


Social distancing interventions can be effective against epidemics but are potentially detrimental for the economy. Businesses that rely heavily on face-to-face communication or close physical proximity when producing a product or providing a service are particularly vulnerable. There is, however, no systematic evidence about the role of human interactions across different lines of business and about which will be the most limited by social distancing. Here we provide theory-based measures of the reliance of U.S. businesses on human interaction, detailed by industry and geographic location. We find that, before the pandemic hit, 43 million workers worked in occupations that rely heavily on face-to-face communication or require close physical proximity to other workers. Many of these workers lost their jobs since. Consistently with our model, employment losses have been largest in sectors that rely heavily on customer contact and where these contacts dropped the most: retail, hotels and restaurants, arts and entertainment and schools. Our results can help quantify the economic costs of social distancing.

Please cite as

Koren, Miklós, and Rita Pető, 2020. “Business disruptions from social distancing.” PLoS ONE. 15(9), pp. e0239113. bib

Data Availability Statement

The mobility data used in this paper is proprietary, but may be obtained free of charge for COVID-19-related research from the COVID-19 Consortium. The authors are not affiliated with this consortium. Researchers interested in access to the data can apply at (data manager: Ross Epstein, After signing a Data Agreement, access is granted within a few days. The Consortium does not require coauthorship and does not review or approve research results before publication. The authors will assist with any reasonable replication attempts for two years following publication. The code and all other data underlying our analysis are licensed for public use and are available on Zenodo at