Social Distancing Dos and Dont’s

Apr 20, 2020

With the country now in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, experts have been emphasizing the importance of stopping its rapid spread. While there’s a general consensus that immunocompromised people or those above 65 are at a higher risk of severe or fatal illness from Covid-19, quite a few people under the age of 50 are contracting the virus.

Simply put, everyone needs to dramatically alter their daily routines, starting now. That means “social distancing.” Here’s what you need to know.

The basics

You probably know the drill at this point, but just to reiterate: Covid-19 is a respiratory coronavirus, and like all respiratory viruses, it spreads by hitching a ride on the tiny droplets of mucus and saliva from coughing and sneezing. It enters your system when you either breathe it in or it enters your bloodstream through the mouth, nose or eyes. It can survive for awhile—anywhere from a few hours to a few days—on hard surfaces, though it’s not clear yet how long it remains transmissible. One obvious and simple way to get around it is to wash your hands liberally, and to clean and disinfect anything you touch frequently

Isn’t social distancing a huge disruption? Would it be better to just keep on as normal?

That depends on whether you feel the lives of anywhere from 20,000 to a few million people are disposable. All of these citizens are someone’s parents, grandparents, children, siblings, spouses, partners and friends. The choice isn’t between economic damage and a few deaths: it’s about avoiding economic damage by avoiding a number of deaths not seen on American soil in living memory. More importantly, this is a moment when protecting people that we don’t know could save their lives, and them doing so could save ours. We get through this together.

How do I socially distance responsibly?

If you can, stay home. Work from home. Eat at home. Sleep at home. If you haven’t gotten into the habit of regularly cleaning your home, now’s a great time to start. And make sure you’re sharing the work! It won’t prevent you from getting sick, but it will keep the people you live with happy, which is just as important.

Remember to stay at least six to ten feet away from anyone you don’t live with, if at all possible (better to be safe than sorry). If someone in your home—a roommate or family member —gets sick and doesn’t rely directly on you for care, it’s best to have them stay in a separate portion of the home, if possible. Only come out of the room to grab food when no one else is in the kitchen, and disinfect all areas—countertops, drawer and refrigerator handles—afterward. Eat your food in the isolated area, and wash any plates or utensils thoroughly with soap and water or in the dishwasher.

So can I sit around with my neighbors on the stoop, porch, or in the driveway?

If it’s possible for you to do so at least six to ten feet away from each other, sure. Chances are you won’t be, though—ten feet is further than you think it is. Keep your distance, and when in doubt, don’t.

What if I have a job that requires me to come into work, or a setting where I might catch the virus?

This is a tough question. The best advice is to organize coworkers and push your workplace to provide sick-leave and protective equipment to the greatest extent possible. You might also consider creating a decontamination protocol: throwing your outside clothing into a washing machine with hot water, washing your hands, cleaning the washing machine, door handles and any other surfaces you’ve touched, and then take a shower. If it’s possible to wear a mask and gloves at work, you might consider doing so as well.

I need food. How can I safely go to the grocery store?

The first step is to cut down on shopping trips (or, if possible, get delivery). While many larger grocery stores like HEB have implemented social distancing protocols, marking out six foot differences between people at checkout and limiting the number of shoppers inside at once, the grocery store is still likely to bring you into contact with other people, and that is something everyone should try to avoid. What does that mean? Wait to go grocery shopping until you absolutely have to. Don’t go just because you want to grab more garlic, or you just want to get out of the house.

When you do need to go to the store, plan for what you need. Make a paper list, and check it twice: planning will help you move quickly once you’re in the store, and it’ll make sure that you don’t forget anything. Wear a mask and gloves when you’re going out to the store, and when you get to the store, wipe down the handle of your shopping cart with disinfectant wipes, which plenty of stores now have near there shopping carts. There isn’t a great way to pay—cash, card, and self checkout all demand some degree of contact with surfaces that other people will be touching—so don’t touch your face until you have a chance to wash your hands. According to cleaning expert Jolie Kerr, reusable nylon and cotton grocery bags can be machine-washed in cold water and air-dried. Reusable bags that can’t be machine-washed can be wiped down with a disinfecting wipe or an EPA-approved all-purpose spray and a paper towel.

You probably don’t need to worry about disinfecting your food—there haven’t yet been any confirmed cases of transmission via packaging—but washing your hands after you put everything away is a good idea.

Should I just get food delivered, in that case? Or am I just putting food delivery people in danger?

The short answer is that, if you can afford it, get food delivered. According to Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, not ordering groceries or takeout from restaurants means that delivery people—generally gig workers—don’t get paid. Deliveries also may cut down on grocery-store crowds.

What about business errands? Like going to an ATM or the bank?

A lot of banks have closed branches, though some banks are raising daily ATM withdrawal limits, as well as monthly mobile check deposit limits. If you’re relying on ATMs to meet your cash needs, remember that they aren’t the cleanest things in the world: wash your hands before and after using one.

Can I go to the gym?

Since that involves touching a lot of hard surfaces that people have been breathing heavily on, experts say no. Home gyms, for the win.

What about going for a run, bike ride, or a hike in a state or national park?

Getting exercise is important, and going outside is a good way to relieve stress. But heavily-trafficked running or biking trails also may not be a great destination at the moment. As with grocery shopping, your best bet is to go outside during off-hours: early morning, evening, or to places that aren’t frequented that much. A good rule of thumb is that the better the air flow in an area, the lower your risk of transmission is. Even so, wear a mask.

There’s been a lot of mixed messaging about visiting parks. While the administration has ordered that National Parks should temporarily suspend entrance fees, several popular parks—Grand Tetons, The Grand Canyon, as well as hundreds of state and local parks—have closed due to concerns of high foot traffic during the pandemic. It’s probably best to avoid camping, long hikes, or visiting popular parks for the foreseeable future.

You can also get some exercise at home by doing yard work, housework, or gardening. Take some time to do floor workouts with help from apps or online video tutorials from your local yoga studio or gym(Some good home-workout options are available here). If you are lucky enough to have a yard, or access to a relatively open space that isn’t in your house, treat that as your gym: it’ll help make working out at home a ritual, like going to the gym is.

I miss people. Can I go to a small gathering of friends? A happy hour?

No. “I would recommend that people minimize social contact, and that means limiting all social engagements,” said Carolyn Cannuscio, the director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. She does suggest that if two households make a strict agreement to reduce all outside contact and only to socialize together, that should be acceptable. Though for safety’s sake it’s probably best to keep a safe distance and wash your hands. “I can see social and mental-health advantages to that kind of approach.

What do I do with my kids?

Kids should be kept away from direct contact with older relatives, or for that matter anyone who doesn’t live in the house. If you’re going outside with younger kids, be careful about what they might touch, said Wayne Rosamond, an epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health. Young kids like to touch things and put them in their mouths. You should not let your kids invite their friends inside for a playdate. Another expert suggested that kids can potentially see their friends outside if you keep them apart, but that means watching them closely: no wrestling, horseplay, or tag. Error on the side of caution and make sure everyone in the family washes their hands.

At the same time, isolation from friends, extended family and school-based or social activities is hard on kids as well as teens and adults. Most experts recommend setting up Skype, Facetime, or other video-conferencing playdates or visits with relatives. (Parents—indeed, everyone—might want to avoid Zoom, which has proved remarkably easy to hack.)

Finally, it’s important to remember that if between managing kids and taking care of loved ones, you feel like you’re working more than usual, it’s because you are. Make time for yourself and cut yourself some slack.

I’m completely single and living alone. How do I keep from going insane?

This isn’t a joke: loneliness can take a toll at the worst of times, and this crisis is particularly isolating and, worse, indefinite. It’s normal to be anxious, upset, and panicky. Rachel Wright, a psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and sex and relationship expert, has a lot of suggestions: Decide how often you want to connect with people through video, set routines and stick to them, practice mindfulness exercises like breath work and journaling, and socialize online as much as feels comfortable. Long phone calls with friends can be particularly nourishing as well.

Can I get a pet?

If you can find one, sure: Dogs don’t appear to catch Covid-19, and while cats can, it’s not clear if they can transmit it. Check your local shelter for animals in need of adoption or fostering, and make sure you’re prepared to take care of an animal for the long haul.

But…how long is this gonna last?

That’s the million dollar question. The truth is that nobody quite knows: what’s looking increasingly likely is that various places in America will go through periods of social distancing every couple of months until a vaccine is developed, which could be around 18 months. Social distancing in one form or another is likely to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

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