Social distancing has become the new normal for the majority of Americans in order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many folks across the country have been staying at home for the better part of a month, in accordance with directives from government and health officials.
When people need to leave their homes — to go to the grocery store or pharmacy, for example — health experts have advised maintaining a 6-foot distance from others.
The rule has caused some people to wonder if it’s safe to see friends, chat with neighbors or go for “social distancing walks,” as long as the 6-foot distance is honored. While experts have urged people not to visit one another’s homes during the pandemic (sorry, but that’s not social distancing!), spending time in the great outdoors is undoubtedly a bit murkier.
To get some insight into the parameters of the 6-foot rule, we turned to medical experts. Ahead, find out what doctors have to say about the do’s and don’ts of staying 6 feet apart, and whether those socially distant walks are a good idea.
First off, why is 6 feet apart the rule for social distancing?
When someone coughs or sneezes, respiratory droplets can linger in the air and travel approximately 6 feet, hence the social distancing rule. Joshua Barocas, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine, emphasizes that this rule is especially important for anyone exhibiting signs of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“It’s important to remember that if you have symptoms, then you should stay at home,” he said. “Creating as much space between you and others [even in your home] is essential.”
Even if you’re not feeling sick, keeping a distance from others is crucial. People can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and research shows those individuals are contributing greatly to the community spread of the coronavirus ― more than scientists originally thought.
Barocas also noted that some new data suggests that the droplets carrying the virus might actually be able to travel farther than 6 feet, which should push people to take additional precautions.
Tony Yuan, a physician and medical director at the online service Doctor On Demand, pointed out that if someone coughs or sneezes with force, or if there’s a strong gust of wind, the droplets can be carried for greater distances.
“There is no definite magic about 6 feet,” Barocas said. “But it is important to remain a safe distance away from others so that one decreases the likelihood of ‘running into’ a droplet.”
You can see a friend if you’re 6 feet apart ― but only under the right circumstances.
Spending time outside can vastly improve your mood, especially if cabin fever is beginning to creep in from all the time at home.
“Our mental health is as important as our physical health, and exercise is good for both,” said Carmen Kavali, a physician and board member with the advocacy group Physicians for Patient Protection. “Getting outside in fresh air is good for our souls and our bodies.”
The best way to reap these benefits is to do it alone. Again, experts say everyone should assume they already have been exposed to the virus at this point and should act like they’re stealth transmitters of the illness.
If it’s absolutely vital to your mental health that you do a social distancing walk with a friend, it must be under specific and extremely essential conditions.
“The first thing to remember is that if you feel ill, you should absolutely stay inside,” Barocas said. “Assuming that you have no symptoms, then walks around the block … with someone who is asymptomatic is reasonable, as long as you are staying at least 6 feet apart.”
Similarly, Yuan said that taking a walk with friends at a 6-foot distance can occur “as long as the other person is not actively coughing or sneezing.”
If you are planning a distanced walk or activity with someone you are not already isolating with, it’s best to pick a spot that won’t be crowded and to venture outside at off-hours to avoid as much contact with others as possible.
This same advice also holds true for other physically distant activities. For example, neighbors may seek to stay connected by arranging their lawn chairs in a very wide circle or talking from respective yards. The best recommendation is “the further away, the better,” Barocas said. “Creating as much space between you and others is essential.”
Yuan agreed that “chatting from a 6-foot distance should be safe,” as long as your neighbors are not actively sick and they have been self-isolating at home. But if your neighbor has recently been visiting friends or family (again, a bad idea), or they’ve been going to and from work as an essential employee, it’s best to avoid contact.
If you’re missing your neighborly bond, Barocas has another suggestion.
“We have seen pictures of people having dance parties on their porches,” he said, with each household sticking to their own porch. “This is absolutely safe,” he added, “and likely helps morale.”
A major exception: No parks or beaches, even if you’re distanced from each other.
It’s one thing to go for a walk around your block with a friend, but visiting a public gathering place presents a much higher level of risk. The latter outings, even if you’re 6 feet apart, are a hard no — at least for the time being.
“It is nearly impossible to control the movements of others and when one person starts a trend, others tend to follow,” Barocas said. “For this reason, gatherings at parks and beaches should be discouraged.”
“A park or a beach may become a crowded space in a short period of time, which may make distancing yourself at least 6 feet from everyone else nearly impossible,” Yuan explained.
Given that Americans have also been advised to avoid gathering in groups of over 10 people, many public parks, playgrounds and beaches across the country are temporarily shutting down. These closures are ultimately designed to keep people safe.
“It is very difficult to practice effective social distancing in large crowds and these tend to occur at places like beaches,” Barocas said. “Stay-in-place orders and advisories were designed to limit this.”
Bottom line, the best option is still virtual visits.
To reiterate: This absolutely does not give you permission to be lax on social distancing. You should only utilize the option of seeing friends 6 feet apart if your mental health truly requires it. Ultimately, the safest way to socialize with friends and family right now is digitally from your respective homes.
“The number of infections is growing nearly exponentially on a daily basis,” Barocas said. “I am concerned about relaxing any restrictions at this point, as physical distancing seems to be our best defense.”
Yuan suggested that people schedule virtual happy hours, dinners, game nights and other kinds of hangouts to maintain important relationships and cope with the emotional ramifications of isolation.
“Most people are social creatures and therefore crave interaction and dialogue with other people,” he said, which you can accomplish through these digital endeavors.
The bottom line is that the longer people wait to take social distancing seriously, the longer we’re all going to have to do it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t chat with your friends.
“Social media is bigger than ever right now, with people connecting over Zoom, TikTok, FaceTime, House Party and more,” Kavali said. “These are safe ways to gather with a group of friends until we can all give each other hugs again — hopefully sooner, rather than later.”