A worker leaves Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant on May 20, 2020. On Tuesday, one day after reopening the assembly plant, Ford temporarily shut down the facility after two employees tested positive for Covid-19. Photo: AFP

Judging by mobility data that Google sums up from smartphone location, Germany is slowly returning to work. America hasn’t started to return, and will take a much greater risk if it does so quickly.

This conclusion is strongly suggested by German and US data for workplace mobility and new Covid-19 cases, respectively. New Covid-19 cases have fallen to around 700 per day, but remain above 20,000 per day in the United States – off the April peak, to be sure, but still at an elevated level.

In both cases, a national lockdown reduced the rate of new infections. But Germany’s combination of widespread testing and contact tracing has reduced new infections to a minimum, while the United States has neither program in place. 

With a high rate of new infections, a return to work and a high degree of personal proximity in the United States carries a high risk of a new wave of infections. After two months of economic shutdown, the US has no choice but to start returning to work.

Germany’s reopening entails fewer risks. Many of the Asian economies already are back to work. By Google’s measure, workplace mobility in South Korea is just 2% lower than normal.

Taiwan is just 9% below normal, Hong Kong 7% below normal, while Vietnam is 16% above normal. Japan remains 23% below normal, still closer to normal than any Western country. Google data are not available for China.

The charts below summarize the US and German data.

Mobility remains at about 50% of normal in American workplaces, according to Google. That means simply that Americans are working about half as much as they normally do.

German workplace mobility has risen from a low of nearly -50 (half as many Germans working as usual) in mid-April) to around -30 (30% fewer working than normal). The gradual improvement in workplace mobility, the chart shows, began after new cases collapsed to below 1,000 a day at the end of April.

Germany’s death rate per 1 million of population is 99, compared to 286 per million in the United States. Germany began testing earlier (it had produced a million test kits before the first case was diagnosed), and its public health system had almost three times as many hospital beds per capita.

It caught more cases early and put more patients in hospital beds. Contact tracing through interviews of patients began immediately. In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States with 1,473 deaths per million population, the government has only begun to hire contact tracers.

These factors explain Germany’s low rate of new infections. The number of new infections in the US has fallen slightly, and the earlier rate of new infections probably was higher than reported due to limited testing. Nonetheless, it remains within the same elevated range that prevailed through most of April.

Significantly, Americans perceive that going back to work still is risky. According to a May 5 poll by the Pew Institute, a leading public opinion research organization, Americans by a margin of more than 2:1 think that restrictions on public activity will be lifted too quickly.

At the state level, the Google data show no difference in mobility between New York (with 1,473 deaths per million population) and California (with 87 deaths per million).

Despite the far lower death rate, new cases haven’t diminished in California, which has twice as many new infections per day as Germany.