Social distancing dos and don’ts

Updated April 13, 2020

Things seem to change so quickly, and so much about the coronavirus is unknown, that there seem to be many more questions than answers. The good news: According to medical and public health experts, there are a handful of guiding principles that can help you make sense of what you can do, and what you can’t.

These principles were distilled from hours of interviews with doctors, nurses, professors, and other experts. In some ways, these may seem like common sense, and you’ll find that these reflect public health guidance from all levels of government.

“This is a framework for people to make their own decisions,” said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute. “Ultimately, we’re trusting each other to make the best decisions we can to take care of everybody.”

Three ways to think about the coronavirus
Don’t panic

It’s important to try to remain as calm as possible, especially as the pandemic drags out over weeks and even months. It’s an undeniably scary time, but fear can be paralyzing or lead to rash decisions, and stress can weaken the immune system.

Focus on the things you can control and remember that small decisions such as staying home and washing your hands can dramatically reduce your risk of becoming infected or transmitting the virus to others.

Focus on minimizing the right risks

It can become easy to obsess over every little thing. But you can’t eliminate risk entirely, and some are much larger than others. You have limited time, energy, and resources; don’t disproportionately spend them on small, theoretical risks and miss the big ones.

The virus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets, making person-to-person contact the largest risk. And because it enters the body through the eyes, nose, and mouth, it’s possible that touching your face could transfer the virus and lead to infection. But remember that the virus does not survive forever on surfaces.

Behave as though you’re sick

Because we are fighting an invisible enemy, and because people can have mild symptoms or be asymptomatic, it’s safest to act as though you have the virus. It’s not about being afraid that everything is dangerous, it’s thinking about protecting people. (You’re likely already acting based on the idea that anyone you encounter could be sick — which is good — and this simply shifts that to also consider how you could affect others.)

So — If you knew you were sick, how would you try to protect others?

Five ways to act now: Stay calm and…
stay home

This is the simplest way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — and one of the best ways we have for stopping this, because the virus can’t spread between people who don’t come into contact. You’re allowed to go outside for essential trips, such as to the grocery store or pharmacy, as well as for exercise, but you should avoid going out as much as possible.

stay away from others

When you do go out, practice “social distancing” by maintaining at least six feet of space from other people. The respiratory droplets we produce, such as from coughing, sneezing, and talking, are large and fall to the ground, so being far enough away from others prevents contact with those droplets, reducing the risk of transmission.

wash your hands

Washing hands thoroughly with soap, for at least 20 seconds, helps destroy and wash away the virus. While encountering respiratory droplets through close contact with others is believed to be the main way the virus spreads, it’s possible that infection can occur from touching something with the virus on it and then transferring it to the face, where it enters from the mouth, nose, or eyes. Washing hands properly, or using hand sanitizer, helps break that chain.

don’t touch your face

It’s hard to keep hands perfectly clean. So when hands may be dirty — especially when you’re outside your home, or you’ve touched a surface that may have the virus on it — try not to touch your face.

wear a mask

State and federal officials now recommend that the general public cover their faces, ideally using reusable cloth masks, when going out. You may have the coronavirus and be contagious without symptoms, and masks can help trap or slow some respiratory droplets. Wearing a mask can help protect others if you are infected, and if everyone does this, it could help fight the spread of the virus.

Other things to remember
Things will change as we learn more. And so the advice will change, too.
Err on the side of caution. Don’t try to find the line of what’s probably safe and walk right up to it.
Get information from quality sources. Trust health officials, medical experts, and responsible reporting that relies on primary sources. And remember, even information from trustworthy sources can become outdated or be taken out of context.
There’s no magic cure. A vaccine will take time to develop. And just because you wear a mask doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow other guidelines.
It’s OK to be freaked out. We all are. Take a break, find a hobby, connect with friends, and, if you need help, ask for it.
So what can I do right now?

Here are some examples of how these principles can help answer specific questions and be applied to different situations.

Is it OK to socialize if we follow the six-foot recommendation?

Staying home overrides social distancing because the risk of transmission from being around people, even if low because you stay apart, is higher than if you are around no one. And there are no hard and fast rules, with six feet helping to reduce risk and prevent infection but not eliminating all risk entirely.

Can I hang out indoors with my friend if we’ve both been isolated for two weeks?

If it’s been two weeks of self-isolation, and you and your friends have shown no symptoms, the probability of infection might be low, but that’s only if both people have really been entirely isolated. That means neither of you have been potentially exposed to other people, or to surfaces that may be carrying the virus. And one of you might have the virus, and not show any symptoms. The risk is that, if you’re wrong, one person might infect the other and then spread it from there. Staying home is safest.

Do I need to wash my clothes when I come in?

It depends on your exposure, but probably not, because the virus doesn’t live for very long on porous surfaces and generally the risk is low. That said, if you bumped into someone, or leaned on a wall, or brushed a subway pole, your clothes might have a higher chance of carrying the virus and merit a wash.

Can I go into my backyard?

This is generally safe. Just make sure to minimize the right risks, such as not being within six feet of neighbors or people walking by on the sidewalk. And remember not to touch your face and to practice hand hygiene.

Can I pick up the mail, the newspaper, or order food delivery?

Since person-to-person contact is the highest risk, delivery is safer than going to a store and encountering other people. And if you do a contactless delivery method, the risk is further reduced. You can also wipe down the outside of the packaging, or let it sit for a while, as a way to minimize that risk even further, but more important is to wash your hands.

Should I use hand sanitizer when I’m outside?

Since the point is to not touch your face with hands that may encounter the virus, first make sure you’re not touching your face. Then, make sure you wash your hands or use sanitizer when you come back into the home from outside — because of whatever you may have encountered — and anytime you are going to touch your face or eat food while outside.

Can I touch my face if I’m inside my home?

If your hands are clean from the virus because you’ve washed your hands, used sanitizer, or not been exposed to the virus? Touch away.