Consider this your guide to the dos and don'ts of social distancing.

If you’ve paid attention to the news in recent days (and weeks, and months), you’ve likely heard a lot about social distancing. Social distancing is exactly what it sounds like: Increasing the distance between yourself and other people you might socialize with, including friends, family, neighbors, and members of your community. Along with hand-washing and other preventative measures, social distancing is one of the primary methods of slowing the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.

With more than 3,000 coronavirus cases in the U.S. and 167,000 globally (as of March 16), it’s vital that we all take action to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. For those who aren’t healthcare workers, public health officials, or government officials, the best thing we can do is slow the spread. (Turn to visualizations such as The Washington Post’s dot simulations or the flatten the curve concept to better understand why this is so important.)

“This is very important,” says Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “We know social distancing works as an effective strategy to protect our health.”

And it’s not just a matter of protecting your own health: Social distancing (with other preventative measures) protects others, too.

“Remember that it’s almost a moral imperative,” says Samarth Swarup, a research associate professor with the Biocomplexity Institute & Initiative at the University of Virginia who builds computational models of social systems to understand how society will respond to both health and natural disasters. “It’s not about helping yourself. It’s about helping other people.”

overhead shot of several people walking with space in between them.
Credit: Bernhard Lang/Getty Images

What is social distancing?

“Do not have contact with others,” says Melissa Graboyes, Ph.D., MPH, an associate professor of medical history and African history at the University of Oregon. “That’s the simplest way to put it.” (Graboyes is currently located in Northern Italy; the country has had almost 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is on lockdown to fight the outbreak.)

All three experts agree that there’s some blurriness as to what officials mean when they encourage social distancing, but at its core, social distancing is an attempt to both reduce the chance that you catch coronavirus and reduce the likelihood of you spreading it to others, particularly to high-risk groups such as the elderly or people who are immunocompromised.

High-risk individuals and their household members should limit their contact with everyone outside the home; low-risk individuals should also limit contact with others, particularly if they’re feeling unwell. (People who think they have coronavirus, have been exposed to it, or have tested positive for it should quarantine themselves from all social interaction, even with household members.)

For healthy people, current U.S. guidelines say to avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people, but even that can pose a slight risk: “We don’t know when exactly people are infectious,” Swarup says.

Because of testing limitations in the U.S., it’s unclear how many people actually have coronavirus without displaying symptoms, and Swarup says people can be infectious without having symptoms. With that in mind, it’s important to practice an abundance of caution: Social distancing works best if everyone participates, particularly in areas where the outbreak seems relatively small. Preventing its spread is key: Even if government and health officials in your area haven’t issued social distancing recommendations or closed public spaces, you should take it upon yourself to protect your family and community.

“Be stricter than what is being recommended,” Graboyes says. Situations can escalate quickly, and social plans that seemed fine two days ago are likely not appropriate now. Taking aggressive action to isolate yourself and your household can have a large impact down the line.

Social distancing doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount of people who get infected, but it does slow it down. Even if the same number of people ultimately get COVID-19, slowing its spread allows the healthcare system to keep up with the needs of people suffering from it, Swarup says. If too many people get critically ill at the same time, as would happen if everyone was exposed to the virus at once, the healthcare system runs out of capacity to help people and more people are likely to die.

The dos and don’ts of social distancing

Some dos and don’ts are obvious: do work from home (if possible); don’t sit and eat in restaurants, bars, or cafes (many cities and states have closed all bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery options already); do avoid any and all crowds, including on public transportation and outdoors; do keep kids off playgrounds and away from neighboring kids. There are some finer details to social distancing, though.

Don’t: Invite people over

“This is not the time to have playdates or birthday parties,” Dr. Benjamin says.

Even a small gathering can pose a risk. Graboyes says every case of COVID-19 right now is leading to two to three additional cases, so even a small gathering of four to five people in someone’s home can lead to many more people getting sick if someone is asymptomatic but transmitting the virus. The safest course of action is to stay home and decline invitations to gatherings at another person’s home.

Avoid one-on-one meetings, too, even if they are in someone’s home or outdoors. If you’re dating, it may be time to take a break—or pick video or audio calls over in-person meetings.

Do: Go outside

Social distancing does not mean healthy individuals have to stay inside all day, every day. (Sick individuals should stay indoors until they’re feeling better.)

“Going outdoors is OK,” Dr. Benjamin says. “I talk about walking and waving. Don’t stop and have a conversation.”

Maintain a six-foot distance between yourself and others while outside, and take precautions to avoid touching surfaces. Think about when you’re walking and try to avoid particularly crowded times of day on your streets, sidewalks, or paths. Wash your hands as soon as you arrive home; if you fear you may have been exposed (someone was coughing, for example), wash your clothes and shower, too.

“You can still go out and about if you’re careful,” Swarup says. “It’s very important to practice healthy behavior.” Skip the gym or workout class, but do exercise outdoors or in your home, eat well, and get plenty of sleep.

Do: Space out your errands

Even in the hardest-hit cities, essentials such as grocery stores and pharmacies remain open. That doesn’t mean you can plan to stop by every day, though.

Graboyes says to think of social distancing recommendations, travel restrictions, and lockdowns as sheltering in place: This pandemic is a severe issue and requires severe action. “It’s a war,” she says. “It’s an emergency across Europe that has not been seen since WWII.”

With that perspective, preparing to stay home and avoiding all social contact is a civic responsibility: “The least we can do is shelter in place and make sure we don’t cause new infections,” she says.

Now is not the time for a shopping trip, a haircut, or a spa day. Space out grocery trips as much as possible, and try to go when the store is usually not crowded; if you must go to a pharmacy or a laundromat or the cleaners, try to go once a month, Dr. Benjamin suggests. Limit your interactions and exposure.

Don’t: Panic

This is a critical point in time, but panicking will only make things worse. “This isn’t rocket science,” Dr. Benjamin says. “Most of it is common sense.”

Swarup agrees, adding, “It comes down to altering your behavior. There’s no need to panic.”

Making drastic changes now to minimize your risk and protect yourself and others means you, your community, and our healthcare system will be better able to handle severe illnesses down the line. With that in mind, staying home seems like a small sacrifice to make.

Do: Stay in touch (virtually) with others

“I encourage people to Facetime or text or make phone calls,” Dr. Benjamin says. “The goal here is to have social distancing but to maintain or advance social cohesion.” In other words, distance yourself to protect your household and others, but don’t isolate yourself completely. Even sick individuals can video-chat with a loved one.

Now, it’s more important than ever to help those around you, even if you can’t help them in-person; there are ways to give back during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it’s calling older relatives, chatting with remote friends online, or setting up a virtual game night with friends remaining in their respective homes, a little connection can help a lot, especially as people become more and more isolated.

How long will social distancing last?

Now for the big question: How long will we need to practice strict social distancing?

The answer isn’t clear, but experts agree that it’s a matter of months, not weeks. “We don’t know how long we’re going to have to do this,” Dr. Benjamin says.

After two weeks of effective social distancing, an end may be in sight, but this stage is likely to last much longer than two weeks, he says. That just makes it all the more important to stay home and avoid all socializing: If everyone does so, things may have a brighter outlook in two weeks; if we don’t, things may look worse.

“Do the best you can to keep yourself healthy and minimize contact,” Graboyes says.


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