Lately I picture myself lying on the ground a lot.
That’s the strategy I use to make sure I practice physical distancing — one of the key ways to prevent coronavirus transmission along with masking up and hand washing.
And when I want to gauge whether I’m 6 feet away from somebody else, I imagine myself lying on the ground. Then I add – um — a couple of inches.
Following these guidelines is more critical than ever in this stage of the pandemic, with surging numbers in many parts of the world along with the discovery of seemingly more contagious strains of COVID-19.
Yet everyone I interviewed for this article has observed that keeping 6 feet from others is definitely a challenge.
I should note that public health specialists — and the World Health Organization — prefer the phrase “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing.” The idea isn’t that we can’t have any social interactions with people in the world outside our pandemic pod — just that we need to be careful when doing so in person. You can still say “Hi” – but from a physical distance of 6 feet.
Why 6 feet?
Which does raise a question: Why is 6 feet the magic number?
Six feet is based on many studies – going back to the late 1800s — about how far infectious droplets can travel through the air after, say, a sneeze or a cough or a shout before falling to the ground, says Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician at Harvard Medical School.
And even if you don’t think you’re sick – you could be infected and not yet know it. So keeping 6 feet of distance can pay off for everyone.
Unfortunately, droplets aren’t the only way the virus travels and infects others. COVID-19 is also spread by smaller aerosols we exhale, and these aerosols can travel more than 6 feet.
But public health doctors say you have to create a reasonable distance for the public to follow.
“If you stay at least 3 feet away from others, the risk is going to be really really low,” says Emily Gurley, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “At 6 feet it’s even lower than that.” And of course 12 or … 100 … feet would be even better. But a harder rule to follow.
So in general, 6 feet of physical distance is a good rule of thumb for this pandemic, according to experts interviewed for this article. And it’s what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. The new variants haven’t led to a recalculation of the number, just a renewed emphasis on sticking to 6 feet.
And also keep in mind: masks help and the overall environment matters. “The highest risk would be close proximity to someone without a mask in an indoor setting for a period of more than a few seconds,” says S. Patrick Kachur, a physician at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Crowded indoor settings are also where the fear of infection by aerosols is greatest.
(But even indoors, if you’re not in a crowd and you and the nearest person are both wearing masks, “the 6 foot rule is adequate,” says Richard Corsi, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University.
What does that distance look like?
So now let’s return to the pressing question: How do you tell if you’re really 6 feet away?
In some situations humans are very good at judging distance. Fulvio Domini, a visual scientist at Brown University, says studies show if you blindfold someone and tell them to walk a certain number of feet – like 6 — they usually do it just fine.
But when the blindfold is off and your brain is busy … thinking … you may not be as accurate.
“Social factors” can affect the way we perceive distance, says Domini.
For example, if you see a snake that’s 6 feet away, you might think it’s closer than it really is because … it’s dangerous and scary!
But if your best friend is standing 6 feet away it might seem like … 60 feet! So you might feel the urge to get a little closer.
Then there’s a phenomenon I call “line creep.” When you’re standing in a line, like in a store, you’re supposed to be 6 feet apart from other people. But somehow the distance just seems to shrink as everyone edges up in the line. It’s human nature. We all want to get to that cashier ASAP.
So that’s when I picture myself lying on the ground.
Another good tip to keep that 6 feet of distance is to think about your wingspan — the distance from fingertip to fingertip with your arms outstretched. If you reach out one arm and the person you’re with reaches out one arm, that’s the rough equivalent of your height — so 6 feet, give or take, depending on how tall you are. If you want to judge distance, stretch out an arm, have your companion do the same and adjust accordingly for your respective stature.
Then there’s the pool noodle method.
A restaurant in Germany made special hats for diners with 6-foot-long foam pool toys called noodles attached. You’ve got 3 feet of noodle in front of you – and so does the next customer. Voila – 6 feet!
What to say if there’s a space jam
But most people don’t walk around with pool noodle hats. So what do you do if you’re in a situation where someone is getting too close?
If it’s just a quick pass-by — and the person isn’t shouting or sneezing into your face, you shouldn’t worry too much. The general idea is to avoid prolonged face-to-face contact and crowds — especially indoors where airflow can’t disperse any infectious particles.
Another safety precaution: just turn your head away from the other person. Then any droplets or aerosols you’re each emitting won’t head directly toward the other one’s face.
If you do want to say something to someone who’s uncomfortably up in your face, there’s no perfect phrase.
Seema Lakdawala, a virologist who studies flu transmission at the University of Pittsburgh, admits she has not been very diligent about speaking up “if people are encroaching on my six feet. In hindsight, I wish I had said something. We all have to do a better job of communicating to people when we feel our environment is becoming less safe.”
So my experts suggest you might try: hey, you probably don’t realize it, but you’re a little closer to me than 6 feet. To protect both of us, let’s just create a little more space.
And if that doesn’t work, you might try a gentle nudge with a 6-foot-long pool noodle.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.