On the basis of an extensive academic–public health partnership around COVID-19 response, we illustrate the challenge of science-policy translation by examining one of the most common nonpharmaceutical interventions: capacity limits. We study the implementation of a 20% capacity limit in retail facilities in the California Bay Area.
Through a difference-in-differences analysis, we show that the intervention caused no material reduction in visits, using the same large-scale mobile device data on human movements (mobility data) originally used in the academic literature to support such limits. We show that the lack of effectiveness stems from a mismatch between the academic metric of capacity relative to peak visits and the policy metric of capacity relative to building code.
The disconnect in metrics is amplified by mobility data losing predictive power after the early months of the pandemic, weakening the policy relevance of mobility-based interventions. Nonetheless, the data suggest that a better-grounded rationale for capacity limits is to reduce risk specifically during peak hours. To enhance the connection between science, policy, and public health in future times of crisis, we spell out 3 strategies: living models, coproduction, and shared metrics.