What is the Distance in Social Distancing?

With social distancing, how far apart should you to be from the next person?

Six feet? We all know that, right?

One problem with how we think about a standard like 6ft social distancing is that our minds tend to turn the minimum into a maximum. We forget that we are told that six is the minimum safe distance and that there are situations where it needs to be more than six. We want the minimum to be standard for every situation. So, six always becomes the answer. While this makes things a lot simpler, and the brain likes that, it is a potentially deadly error with COVID-19. What, then, is a safer way to think about social distance?

At the recent graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy, the cadets were made to sit 8-10 feet apart, not just the standard 6. This is because the reason for the rule, the “why” of it, is to keep each other safe from what we are all expelling from our lungs. And that distance depends on what we are doing with our lungs in shared space. The cadets would be cheering. The contents of their lungs would be projected farther than if they were just sitting quietly. So, the organizers wisely went with 8-10 feet, not just six.

Since safe distance depends upon what we and others are doing with our lungs, we need to know what that is to know what the safe distance is

With what we are doing with our lungs, we are told if everyone is resting, 6ft is apparently fine. With just about anything else, it is looking inadequate. While the research needs to catch up, at this point it looks like 6ft is not enough if anyone talks, laughs, sneezes, is walking, biking, running, deep breathing, doing yoga or other exercise. Why? Because with those activities the lungs are being emptied with force. And force creates distance for what is in the lungs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that anyone yet has looked into minimal safe distance for singing, like singing in church or in a choir. Nor have I seen anything about how far the virus goes when blown through wind or brass instruments. Musicians are taught to project, and that might mean the contents of the lungs go a greater distance than in other activities. We shall see. Musical groups are eager to get back together. But that may not be wise without the research.

In addition to knowing what people are doing with their lungs, we need to understand the shared air space. Will we be rebreathing other people’s air? Is the space enclosed or open? Is the air stagnant? Is there air flow that will dissipate the virus or relocate it? Which way is the wind going? Are there people there? This all takes situational awareness. And that situational awareness needs to occur when our minds are on other things as well. We need to be good at it while multitasking. We will need to have these calculations become automatic.

One other mistake to watch for in our thinking comes from the symbolic meaning face masks carry. Do they mean we are safe, or do they mean the situation is dangerous? If we take them to mean we are safe, we will be fooled into thinking we don’t need to social distance. Masks do not eliminate the possibility of transmission. They only reduce them. Because of this common cognitive error, authorities feel the need to keep reminding us that a face mask is not a substitute for social distancing. It is meant simply as additional protection. They are right to remind us of this. The real meaning of the mask is that the situation is not safe.

But face masks and social distancing also convey the important message that we care about each other. Let’s focus on that.