In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the ever-increasing number of confirmed cases and deaths in the United States, people are starting — if they haven’t already — to change their daily routines and behaviors to which they were accustomed.
No longer are people meeting in large groups for dinners or parties, gathering in public spaces for sporting events or concerts, or even relaxing in parks or at beaches.
Instead, because of Covid-19 — which as of March 27 had resulted in more than 500,000 confirmed cases an 24,000 deaths worldwide, as well as more than 85,000 cases and over 1,200 deaths in the U.S. — people are forgoing public gatherings and practicing social distancing.
Health care professionals and public health officials have recommended social distancing as a key action to stopping or slowing down the spread of the highly contagious disease. Some state and local governments have issued “stay-at-home” orders to limit citizens’ movements.
Distant but still connected
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social distancing involves “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately six feet) from others when possible” to limit the ability of the coronavirus to spread.
“It was created in order to prevent the spread of infectious diseases,” says Dr. Sandra Ford, interim director of the Fulton County Board of Health in Atlanta and the 2019-20 board vice president for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “It’s our best response to preventing the spread of Covid-19. This is the reason I say ‘physical’ distancing vs ‘social’ distancing. We are encouraging people to physically stay apart but to remain connected via social networks.”
For the coronavirus, people should absolutely adhere to the practice of social distancing, “to minimize the risk of infection — not only for the individual but to others whose immune system may be more vulnerable,” Ford adds.
A lack of physical and in-person human contact can have both ups and downs, says Dr. Brandon Williamson, a family medicine physician at the Texas A&M University’s family health care center.
“If there is one thing we should be better at compared with the Spanish flu in 1918, it is our ability to stay at home,” he says. “The entertainment outlets available to us from the comfort of a living room are unparalleled, and the ability to socially distance while not feeling as relationally distant, through the use of smart devices and various apps, is also phenomenal.”
Williamson adds that social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t have contact with friends and family. That contact has just changed forms.
“Checking in on people with Facetime or Google Hangouts are vital methods to keep you, and others, from feeling alone and isolated during these trying times,” he says.
Social distancing isn’t the same thing as self-quarantining or isolation, two additional practices being utilized to minimize the spread of the virus.
According to the CDC, a quarantine or an isolation restricts the movement of people within a certain area so that it may limit the transferring and spreading of an infection. Social distancing doesn’t place such constraints on location; rather, it’s a behavioral practice that can lower the risk in many circumstances.
Julia Hobsbawm, a London-based author who addresses problems and solutions of humans in the machine age, says social distance and physical distance mean you can still engage in activities with other people, so long as you keep your distance.
“I have been talking walks with friends in my local park like this and taking comfort from being outside and seeing their physical bodies and faces but staying safe,” she says.
“Social isolation is when even that is deemed too dangerous. Remember that this virus is very, very infectious, and minuscule particles can still land on you if you have contact of any kind, which makes social isolation necessary for vulnerable groups such as the elderly but also, perhaps, all of us. Social isolation then means no physical contact of any kind outside of a household and ideally isolation between people within a household.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, examples of social distancing that enable people to avoid crowds or crowded spaces include:
• Working from home instead of at the office.
• Closing schools or switching to online classes.
• Visiting loved ones by electronic devices instead of in person.
• Cancelling or postponing conferences and large meeting
Ford says there are plenty of ways to manage social distancing, including “group chats, Zoom meetings, dance parties, virtual cookouts, etc. The goal is to stay connected as much as possible without being in the same space,” she says. “Also, virtual book clubs, virtual workout groups, virtual cooking demos are some suggestions.”
Williamson says staying physically and mentally healthy during this time also is important.
“Be active, even if you are inside,” he says. “Do various bodyweight exercises or, if conditions permit, go for a walk at least once a day. Call family and friends at least once a day. Catch up on all the things you wish you had time to watch or read.”
Williamson adds that people shouldn’t leave their homes unless it is critical to do so.
“Don’t visit the grocery store unless you really need to,” he said. “Now is not the time to go visit friends or go to the home improvement store to work on a project. All of these things seem innocuous but could lead to harm. If you have to go to work, keep the recommended distance between you and any co-workers, wash your hands or use sanitizer frequently, and do not touch any part of your face.”
Hobsbawm says social distancing can be used as a means to enhance certain skills.
“For seniors, it’s an opportunity to gain digital skills and to rely on resilience some of them will remember from real war time,” she says. “For teenagers, it is a life lesson they will find hard, but I’m already finding my two teenagers of 15 and 19 learning to adapt too quickly. They already spend a lot of time online, but this is making them want to cook, play games and hang out chatting in real time in the home, which is unusual.
“And for working professionals it is a moment to focus on the simplicity of priority: To welcome not having to waste all that time in meetings or on endless productivity apps and just focus on what needs to be done in a very slimmed down way.”