Economic Impact of COVID-19

In addition to its health impact, COVID-19 is leading to unprecedented economic disruption.  On this page we collect pieces by CROWE researchers tracking and analyzing the economic impact of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and around the world.


Past Events
  • August 12, 2020:
    Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) webinar featured a presentation by CROWE’s director, Noah Williams. Professor Williams provided attendees with an economic update, break down of the latest data and a preview of where we may be headed in the fall. 
  • July 29, 2020:
    Wisconsin’s COVID-19 Economic Impact (Wisconsin Bankers Association (WBA) Coronavirus Management Series): Noah Williams, Director for the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focused on Wisconsin’s economy and touched on national issues during this webinar, followed by a Q&A session. Read the summary
  • July 21, 2020:
    Rotary Club of Milwaukee featured a talk by Noah Williams, Professor of Economics at UW Madison. Williams’ talk discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the Wisconsin economy from onset of the pandemic, through the statewide Safer at Home Order, and during reopening.
    Watch Video

Updated Sep 11, 2020 (first posted Aug 7, 2020)

Wisconsin’s labor market and COVID-19

This brief reports labor-market indicators for Wisconsin to demonstrate the effects of COVID-19 on labor supply and demand. This report is part of a larger effort at CROWE to document and analyze the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Weekly initial unemployment claims in Wisconsin. Kim Ruhl, Sep 11, 2020.
Unemployment rates in Wisconsin. Kim Ruhl, Sep 11, 2020.
Daily initial unemployment claims in Wisconsin. Kim Ruhl, Sep 11, 2020.
Measures of job loss. Kim Ruhl, Sep 11, 2020.

Updated Sep 11, 2020 (first posted June 11, 2020)

The Wisconsin Economy During COVID-19: Lockdown and Reopening

This brief summarizes data on the Wisconsin economy since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In particular, I analyze economic activity using foot traffic at commercial locations around the state. There was a sharp drop in activity during March, bottoming out at a 67% year over-year decline in mid-April, with roughly 75% drops for hotels and 70% for restaurants. Activity recovered, accelerating with the invalidation of the Safer at Home order in May, before slowing in July. Total activity peaked at 21% down in early July before dropping to -28%. The drop was due both to the holiday timing and the resurgence of the virus and the re-imposition of public health restrictions. Since mid-July activity has been largely unchanged, with total activity now down 26% and retail off 20% from 2019.

Gains in the accommodations and food sector, which was hardest hit, have been strong since reopening. Bars and restaurants saw over 150% growth from April to June, although activity remains down around 25%. The strongest recent recovery has been in health care, which is now up 20% year-over-year. Madison had a sharper activity drop than the rest of the state due to the closing of the UW, and its slower reopening has meant a slower recovery. Again, most geographic locations and most sectors have been flat for weeks.

I also analyze labor market data from a sample of mostly small businesses. By mid-April 48% of these businesses were closed, with employment down 59%. Employment recovered to within 1% of the baseline before declining slightly, and has fallen slightly recently to -7% (some due to Labor Day). The food and drink sector had a larger 72% employment drop in April, with open locations having minimal staffing. As food and drink establishments reopened, they brought back more workers. However the recovery in this sector stalled in mid June, with employment still down roughly 17%, suggesting more permanent closures.

Finally, I analyze data on consumer spending from transactions. After plummeting in March and April, spending in Wisconsin recovered rapidly, with year-over-year gains during May-July before tailing off recently. Spending is now down 0.5% from 2019. Consumption patterns have shifted, with more spending on groceries and less at restaurants and travel, and a growing share of spending has moved on-line, as instore sales remain over 10% down.

Total spending in Wisconsin and the rest of the United States, four-week year-over-year growth. Noah Williams, Sep 11, 2020
Relative visits for all locations and select industries in Wisconsin during 2020 vs. the same period in 2019. 7-day moving average of year-over-year visits, normalized to first week of March. Noah Williams, Sep 11, 2020.
Changes in employees working, locations open, and hours worked at small businesses in the food and drink industry in Wisconsin. 7-day averages of daily data. Noah Williams, Sep 11, 2020.
Total spending online and in-store in Wisconsin, four-week year-over-year growth. Noah Williams, Sep 11, 2020
Relative visits for Milwaukee MSA, Madison MSA, and the rest of the state. 7-day average yearover-year traffic, indexed to March. Madison generally faced a larger decline and slower recovery than Milwaukee, but activity slowed more in Milwaukee in July, which allowed Madison to overtake it. Noah Williams, Sep 11, 2020.
Changes in employees working, locations open, and hours worked at small businesses in the food and drink industry in Wisconsin. 7-day averages of daily data. Noah Williams, Sep 11, 2020.

updated Aug 25, 2020 (first posted June 11, 2020)

Business Formation during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread job losses, and in addition there is timely and high-frequency data that shows a significant disruption in early-stage business formation. We find that changes in employment and labor force participation rates play a fairly limited role in accounting for business formation in “normal” times. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, labor market disruptions of a truly unprecedented magnitude play a far more prominent role in explaining the collapse of business formation in the US. One of our concerns is that a prolonged decline in the labor market may have a scarring effect on business formation.

The third update to the “Business Formation during the COVID-19 Pandemic” report updates the business formation statistics to include calendar weeks 29 through 33 and the state-level labor market data for the month of July. Labor market conditions and business applications are linked using the same accounting approach as the original report and the two previous updates. The rebound in business formation continued through the first two weeks of August and year-to-date totals now exceed the corresponding cumulative numbers from previous years, both at the national level and in virtually all Midwestern states. Local and national labor market conditions, on the other hand, continue to be poor by historical standards. Modest year-on-year gains in the employment rate (and hence a corresponding drop in the unemployment rate) since June are partially offset by a deterioration in the labor force participation rate.

For a more detailed discussion of the underlying methodology and data sources, the interested reader may want to review the original report.

Following a sharp drop in business applications in the spring, Wisconsin experienced a robust rebound from late May through early July, and a stabilization of sorts at an elevated level since then. Simeon Alder, Aug 25, 2020.
The recovery in business applications since the end of May has been sufficiently sustained to surpass the comparable year-to-date number of applications from previous years. Simeon Alder, Aug 25, 2020.

July 24, 2020

The COVID-19 Recovery Has Stalled

After a rapid and deep crash with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, economic activity rebounded sharply from mid-April through the end of June across the country. However activity has fallen from its peaks in early July and has been flat over the past ten days or so, roughly in line with the spread of the virus and the reimposition of more stringent public health restrictions in different locations. In many states economic activity by mid-July was back where it was roughly one month earlier, if not lower.

Relative visits for all locations and select industries in Wisconsin during 2020 vs. the same period in 2019. 7-day moving average of year-over-year visits, normalized to first week of March. Noah Williams, 24 July, 2020.
Relative visits for the retail sector in select states during 2020 vs. the same period in 2019. 7-day moving average of year-over-year visits, normalized to first week of March. Noah Williams, 24 July, 2020.

July 3, 2020

The Economic Impact of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Ruling Invalidating the State’s Safer at Home Order

Using several real-time economic measures, this brief provides evidence suggesting a modestly positive impact of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling invalidating the state’s Safer at Home order on economic activity. In two weeks following the ruling, relative to states where non-essential businesses were shut down, Wisconsin experienced a larger increase in the number of small businesses open (7.8 ppts), net revenue for small businesses (4.6 ppts), employment of low-income workers (0.8 ppts), earnings of low-income workers (1.6 ppts), individual mobility as measured by GPS data on time spent outside residential locations (3.2 ppts) and consumer credit/debit card spending (3.1 ppts).

Two weeks after the Wisconsin Supreme Court invalidated the state’s Safer at Home order on May 13, 2020: (1) the number of small businesses open increased by 9.9 percentage points, which is 7.8 percentage points larger than its synthetic control; (2) time spent at retail and recreation locations increased by 17 percentage points for Wisconsinites, which is 13.3 percentage points more than their counterparts in the synthetic control.

updated June 26, 2020 (first posted March 24, 2020)

The effects of COVID-19 on Wisconsin’s workers and firms




Unemployment estimates by county, Current level. Kim Ruhl, 26 June, 2020.
Unemployment estimates by county, Change since Feb 2020. Kim Ruhl, 26 June, 2020.

With the repeal of the Safer at Home order, there are likely significant flows of people out of unemployment and back to work. Daily data on these workers is not available. Without a measure of this worker flow, our estimated rate will not track the true rate very well. For this reason, we have stopped updating the unemployment rate.

Estimated Wisconsin unemployment rate, daily, Kim Ruhl, 26 June, 2020.


Market capitalization of Wisconsin public firms, Kim Ruhl, 26 June, 2020
Market capitalization of Wisconsin’s public firms, normalized so that it is equal to 100 on February 21. Kim Ruhl, 26 June, 2020.

June 26, 2020

Protest Dynamics: Evidence from Foot Traffic Data

Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, there have been substantial protests in many cities around the country, and indeed around the world. In this brief I use foot traffic data to analyze the dynamics of the protests at different locations around the United States. In both Minneapolis and Washington, DC, I find protests growing in scale to a peak, and diminishing thereafter. Since early June, overall activity has dropped substantially in the zip code in Minneapolis that was at the heart of the protests, likely due to sustained damage at area businesses. In Washington, protest activity around the White House started later, growing to a peak on June 6. Activity has declined since then, but remains elevated relative to April and May, and has spiked on weekends. Overall, I find that the protests led to isolated spikes in activity at particular locations. But the protests did not substantially impact overall measures of activity in the metro areas where they took place.

Relative same-location visits for locations in Minnesota and the 55406 zip code in Minneapolis. Noah Williams, 26 June 2020.
Relative same-location visits at the Hay Adams hotel in Washington and other hotels in the District of Columbia. Noah Williams, 26 June, 2020.

Updated May 29, 2020 (first posted May 14, 2020)

Reopening the Economy: Early Evidence from Georgia and Wisconsin

While the data only covers the first ten days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, there was a noticeable increase in overall activity, which gained 7.5 percentage points in the past two weeks, closing 16% of the year-over-year gap.  The gains were particularly notable in bars (up 75%) and full service restaurants (up 64%) last weekend relative to the weekend before the decision. Total activity still remained 38% below 2019 levels, but is well up from the 59% declines in mid-April, and the recent gains suggest a growing rebound. This is particularly true in the hardest hit sector of accommodations and food, such as hotels (up 11 points, but still down 60% from 2019) and full service restaurants (up 16 points, but still down 48% from 2019).

Same-location visits for bars and full service restaurants in Wisconsin over the last three weeks (relative to April 26, 2020). Noah Williams, May 29, 2020.
Relative same-location visits for all locations and select industries in Wisconsin and Georgia during 2020 vs. the same period in 2019. Noah Williams, May 29, 2020

Current Economic and Health Indexes. May 7, 2020

Left panel: Estimated increase in unemployment rate by county (3/15/20-5/5/20, percent). Right panel: cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases by county over last 7 days (4/30/20-5/6/20, per 100,000 residents, log scale).
Current economic index and its components statewide and in the five highest and lowest counties in Wisconsin.


Current health index and its components by HERC region. 
reopening wisconsin Wisconsin COVID-19 CROWE

“On average, the counties in Wisconsin that were in worse economic condition before the COVID-19 pandemic have suffered the largest losses during the crisis.” Noah Williams, April 28, 2020.

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 May 5,  2020

Measuring proximity to others in the workplace

Most proposals to “reopen” the economy suggest a staged reopening, beginning with relatively low-risk sectors. We score industries by the need for workers to be proximate to others and find that the healthcare industry has the highest score, followed by hospitality and food service. Manufacturing and retail are intermediate and the professional and management industries have relatively low score.


Proximity scores and employment in Wisconsin. Kim Ruhl, 5 May, 2020


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Updated May 6, 2020 (first posted April 2, 2020)

Measuring Wisconsin Economic Activity Using Foot Traffic Data

“Economic activity in Wisconsin, as measured by foot traffic data, has recovered slightly over the past two weeks. Activity fell sharply though March and early April, hitting a low of a 60% drop year-over-year for the week of April 12. However there has been a partial recovery over the last two weeks, with an easing of some restrictions and a reduction in social distancing, with total activity down 45% for the week ending May 2. Retail trade led the recovery, going from down 44% the week of April 12 to down 22% last week. There was also modest recovery in accommodation and food services, health care, and finance, all of which saw relative gains of 10-15 percentage points over the past two weeks. But even with this recent rebound, activity remains far below 2019 levels.”

Relative same-location visits for all locations and select industries in Wisconsin during 2020 vs. the same period in 2019. Noah Williams, May 6, 2020.
Total same-location visits for hotels and grocery stores in Wisconsin during 2020 vs. the same period in 2019. Noah Williams, May 6, 2020.
Stay at home Wisconsin COVID-19 CROWE
Stay At home Wisconsin COVID-19 CROWE

The fraction of Wisconsinites at home all day increased by about 20 percentage points in March (Level). A comparison with its synthetic control, a weighted average of states without a stay-at-home order by the end of the month, suggests that about 20% of the increase (4 percentage points) can be attributed to the Safer at Home order (Difference). Junjie Guo, April 29, 2020.

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Consumer Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated April 23, 2020 (first posted April 16, 2020)

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the United States, consumers have changed their spending habits dramatically. There has been a sharp drop in consumption, but also a large shift: grocery spending has risen while restaurant and especially travel spending has fallen sharply. The consumption decline overall was cushioned by increasing on-line sales. In Wisconsin, total sales were down 15% at the end of March, but in-store sales were down 30%, with online sales up 20%. Noah Williams, April 23, 2020

The aviation sector is among the sectors most heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This brief uses real-time data to track the decline in flights and passengers at a daily frequency in Wisconsin and beyond since the introduction of broad social distancing measures in mid-March of 2020. Simeon Alder, 8 April, 2020
Overall, many different indicators in the Chinese economy showed declines of 20% or more, and 30% or more relative to their pre-crisis trends, during the peak crisis month of February 2020, with substantial variation across regions and industries. Chang Liu, April 6, 2020
Under the new federal law, unemployment benefits would exceed 115% of wages on average across states, and would be much higher in some states. Noah Williams, March 27, 2020
10-30% of Workers Would be At Risk Economically When Ordered To Stay At Home, Junjie Guo, March 26, 2020
Google searches predict that initial unemployment claims will skyrocket to 1.6 million (more than double the previous record high) this week, Noah Williams, March 23, 2020
Initial UI claims increase more in states with more confirmed cases of COVID-19, Junjie Guo, March 23, 2020

Media Mentions of CROWE Research

Sep 16, 2020
Read what CROWE’s director, Prof Williams and other experts say about the increased pressure on local and federal government officials to make extensive budget cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic in Badger Herald‘s piece “UW to face economic fallout in 2021 fiscal year due to COVID-19″.

“Corona-nomics How is the economy faring under extraordinary stress?” In the Fall 2020 issue of UW-Madison’s alumni magazine, OnWisconsin, CROWE Director Prof Noah Williams says “There was a lot of damage happening, and if we didn’t post frequently, we were afraid we’d miss a lot of what was going on.”…  Read the story here

Aug 29, 2020
“Why Joe Biden’s tax plan will bring on a more sluggish US economy”. New York Post ran Noah Williams’s City Journal article on Biden’s Tax Plan as an opinion piece. Read it here

Aug 25, 2020
“Back to Low Growth: The impact of Joe Biden’s tax plan would be less income across the spectrum and a sluggish economy”,  writes Noah Williams in City Journal. Read the full article here and Zhigang Ge’s quantitative study cited in the article here. A commentary is posted here via Manhattan Institute.

July 31, 2020
“What Comes Next After An Historic Drop In The US Economy?” Listen to Noah Williams on Wisconsin Public Radio.

July 22, 2020 summarizes Noah Williams’s talk at Rotary Club of Milwaukee. Read it here. Also read Williams’s  edited headline tweet.

July 21, 2020
“As Coronavirus Spreads, Wisconsin’s Economic Recovery Haults, Mimicking Other States’ Patterns” Read article on Noah Williams’s talk at Rotary Club of Milwaukee published by SpectrumNEWS1

June 24, 2020
Wisconsin Spotlight highlights CROWE’s research in “Recovering from the Lockdown” Read more

June 1, 2020
Wisconsin Business Voice Video Series: UW-Madison Professor & Director of Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE), Noah Williams discussed the economic impacts of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and our current unemployment status. Watch here


May 27, 2020
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quotes Noah Williams in “Unpaid unemployment claims top 728,000 as state Senate holds hearings on backlog” Read more

May 21, 2020
ABC News quotes Noah Williams in “Employers struggle to compete with $600 unemployment payments” Read more

May 13, 2020 summarizes The UW Now Expert Panel discussion on the Economic Effects of COVID-19 –“As Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is estimated to exceed 20 percent based on initial unemployment claims, rural northern parts of the state are seeing a larger impact.” Read more

May 13, 2020
 “UW-Madison’s Economists: 2022 is the Target for Return Normalcy in these Key Areas” — Mike Semmann, Executive VP/COO, Wisconsin Banker’s Association, summarizes the highlights of The UW Now Expert Panel discussion on the Economic Effects of COVID-19 in a rapid fire Q & A format. Read it here

May 12, 2020
City Journal “Policymakers should move toward a phased-in, regional approach to re-openings—and pay attention not only to infections but also unemployment.” – says Noah Williams in “Economic Well-being Matters, Too”. Read More

May 9, 2020
CNBC  cites Noah Williams in an article headlined “It pays to stay unemployed. That might be a good thing” Read More

May 1, 2020
CROWE Web discussion covered by SPECTRUM NEWS1 in “How Coronavirus Has Affected Wisconsin’s Economy,” Read more 

April 29, 2020
CROWE Web discussion covered by The Badger Herald in “UW economist explains state of Wisconsin economy during COVID-19 pandemic.” Read more


April 26, 2020
CNN Tonight featured an interview with Noah Williams in a story “Wisconsin’s economy hit hard by the coronavirus” by @miguelmarquez highlighting the difficulties people are facing. Watch it here.

April 23, 2020
The New York Times cites Noah Williams’s work in an article headlined “The $600 Unemployment Booster Shot, State by State” . Read more

April 18, 2020
PBS Wisconsin cites Noah Williams in an article headlined “Unemployment Claims Soar as COVID-19 Continues to Threaten Wisconsin’s Economy” Read More

April 16, 2020
The Economist cites Noah Williams’s work in an article that appeared in the Finance and economics section of the print edition under the headline “Picking off the weak”. Read more

April 10, 2020
The Daily Cardinal cites Noah Williams in “Wisconsin’s unemployment rate skyrockets ….” Read more

April 9, 2020
BizTimes Milwaukee Business News cites Kim Ruhl’s report in an article headlined “Wisconsin unemployment claims dropped last week, but there’s little room to celebrate” Read more

April 8, 2020
Green Bay Press-Gazette cites Noah Williams’s Foot-traffic data in “How many visitors did Wisconsin businesses lose because of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing? Report says 52% drop in foot traffic” Read more

April 2, 2020
City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research featured Noah Williams’s article “Thinking Past the Crisis- Federal expansion of jobless benefits is necessary but may impede recovery”. Read more

April 1, 2020
“Wisconsin unemployment rate could hit record high in the next week, economist says”. Watch Noah’s interview with @tmj4

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WMC Business Coalition COVID-19 Update

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) hosted a webinar that featured Noah Williams, Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy Director. Williams discussed the current economic trends in the state of Wisconsin as unemployment in the state surges past 14%.

Summary of Noah’s presentation at the WMC Webinar from

“We think our estimate is perhaps a little bit closer to the truth than the official one,” said Williams to a Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce audiei. “The monthly state estimates are known to have a significant amount of error, there’s a relatively small sample, so they have to fill it in with a model, the model is based on older data, and this is really just a time where measurements and models aren’t working very well.” Read more

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), its trade association partners and local chambers hosted a business coalition update call on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. The webinar featured U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and an economic update from CROWE Director and University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Noah Williams.

Update on the WI economy : Noah’s slides


Summary of Noah’s presentation at the WMC Webinar from

“Everything is kind of proportional to duration, so if we extend (Safer-at-Home) another month, I wouldn’t be surprised if it hit that 27 percent and (went) beyond it,” said Prof. Noah Williams of CROWE in a Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce webinar. Read more

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) hosted a business coalition update call that featured a federal update from U. S. Rep. Bryan Steil (WI-1st). Additionally attendees heard from Marcus Corporation President & CEO Greg Marcus, University of Wisconsin Professor and Director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy, Noah Williams, and Wisconsin Medical Society CEO Dr. Clyde “Bud” Chumley.