Updated: February 5, 2023
Between the loaves of bread, a new quarantine trend recently emerged online: selfies from “socially distant hangs,” which just look like one person’s huge face near the camera, and another, smaller person, a theoretical six feet away. My Instagram story feed this past weekend was littered with this kind of post. Maybe people are getting lonely, or feeling falsely confident that they’ve already had COVID-19, or maybe it was just the obscenely and unfairly nice weather, tempting people out of their quarantine bunkers. Whatever the reason, people are over-interpreting the directive to stay “six feet apart” as permission to do everything they’d normally do, so long as they keep a six-foot bubble of space around them at all times.
The CDC guidelines for preventing getting sick are extremely clear about staying home as much as possible. In New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, the coronavirus-prevention tagline is literally just, “Stay home to stop the spread of coronavirus,” not “Stay home, unless you really want to see your friend or go on a godforsaken Tinder date, in which case play with fire and dance very close to the six-feet-apart limit, and maybe go in for a hug if you feel it.”
On Monday, April 6, people in masks crowded benches in New York City’s Washington Square Park.
The CDC and most local governments also now recommend wearing a non-medical mask and maintaining a distance of at least six feet when in public, a directive some people seem to have misunderstood as an “either/or” situation. Just like wearing a mask out in public doesn’t replace social distancing, going out of your way to see friends, even from a “safe” distance, doesn’t replace the foremost advice to stay home as much as possible. Some combination of misinterpretation and flat-out ignorance of these guidelines, which are only meant to keep you and others healthy, is what led to reported overcrowding in public parks all last weekend.
“Six feet” isn’t a magic number that keeps you absolutely safe from getting sick. Like all other directives for stopping the spread, the six-feet apart line is a precaution based on what scientists know about coronavirus and how respiratory illnesses are spread, in general. None of these rules are guarantees that you, personally, won’t get sick; even people who say they’ve followed all the directives to a tee have still gotten sick with “mild” yet still debilitating cases. All of these rules are basically the best thing we’ve got, in lieu of a vaccine for COVID-19.
The “six feet” figure comes from how far respiratory droplets, which is how scientists believe coronavirus is most commonly spread, can travel in the air. It’s believed that anyone with the virus who coughs, sneezes, or simply talks within six feet of other people can get those people sick. But like the entire rest of science, it’s not a hard and fast fact. A recent article published in JAMA by an assistant professor at MIT points out that the science behind the six-feet rule comes from a model of disease transmission developed in the 1930s, which seems perhaps overly simple by today’s standards. The JAMA article ultimately suggests that, by a new model of how droplets travel, even a six-feet distance might be cutting it too close.
Medical professionals are pretty clear on taking as much precaution as possible, too. “It’s not just about six feet, it’s staying home,” Suzanne Willard, associate dean of global health at Rutgers School of Nursing, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Think of staying six feet apart from other people as the second-line of defense, after staying home as much as possible. When you must go out in public—to the grocery store or pharmacy, or on a solitary walk in the sun—it’s helpful to stay away from other people (even if you’re wearing a mask).
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