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What Is Social Distancing?

March 24, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Every time period has its few buzzwords and catchphrases that pop up and make the rounds. Some may disappear; others may eventually find their way into the dictionary if they weren’t there before. But for that specific time period, those words and phrases are part of everyone’s vocabulary. During these difficult times, that phrase is “social distancing.”


While it seems self-explanatory, let’s break it down. What exactly is social distancing, and why is it necessary?


Social distancing is a group of measures taken by the government to help stop a contagious disease from spreading. These measures can include things such as closure of government offices, schools, restaurants, and movie theaters. Other measures taken include limiting the number of people who can gather together in public or private which would require the cancellation of certain lifecycle events like weddings and closing places of worship. Some cities may choose to close mass transit entirely, while others may take protective measures like limiting the number of riders per train car or bus. At minimum, these measures mean maintaining a distance of six feet between yourself and another person.

The practice of social distancing also has hygiene repercussions. While you should also do this regardless of disease, make sure you don’t send your sneeze or cough out into the general atmosphere. Instead, sneeze or cough into the crook of your arm. Direct contact with another person should be limited, especially if you don’t know who they’ve been around. Things like hand shaking, hugging, and kissing are no-go’s during times like these. And even if it’s just in your house where you know who’s been where and who’s touched what, regularly disinfecting all surfaces is good practice.

Though some of these measures may seem extreme (all that time and money spent wedding planning for naught!), these are less extreme than forcing the entire population into full-blown quarantine or isolation as opposed to self quarantine for those who need it, like the elderly and immunocompromised. Isolation and quarantine involve the infected person or persons being kept by themselves in a separate room with access to necessities for a period of time until it is believed they have sufficiently recovered and can no longer pass the disease on to someone else.


So now that you know the what’s, let’s get into the why’s.


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a pandemic is “(of a disease) existing in almost all of an area or in almost all of a group of people, animals, or plants.” This is exactly what happened with COVID-19 as it spread through the Wuhan province of China, and in places like Italy. In the situation of COVID-19, it is easily spread by air when someone who has been infected sneezes or coughs, and you come into contact with that sneeze or cough.

Now hopefully you can understand why the practice of social distancing is necessary. In a season where lots of people are coughing and sneezing–even if merely because of the common cold or allergies–lots of germs are being launched into the general atmosphere. Simply being around those germs can cause you to be infected, and nobody wants that to happen. Therefore, measures like limiting time spent outside and around groups of people will limit your exposure and help contain the virus itself.

Ashely Alker, MD, MSc

“Coronavirus is thought to travel six feet. The theory behind social distancing is keeping people from giving each other the virus through physical distance. If everyone stayed at home for 14 days, the virus would be effectively gone.”

In times like these, it is best to listen to your government officials and put their orders into practice. With everyone taking the necessary precautions, it will prevent the spread of the virus and help things return to normal as soon as possible.

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