Social Distancing Doesn’t Mean You Have to Be a Hermit

Experts explain how to socialize in the time of COVID-19.


Melissa Matthews |

The COVID-19 pandemic has (in South Africa alone) suspended Super Rugby, cancelled mass events such as the Two Oceans Marathon and the Cape Epic, and prohibited gatherings of more than 100, and spawned a new phrase: social distancing.

On Sunday evening President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that gatherings of more than 100 people will be prohibited. While public health officials aren’t recommending that healthy people completely isolate themselves, we are urged to limit contact between groups of people and to minimise physical contact. This is where the practice of social distancing comes in.

Think of social distancing as the middle ground between quarantine and doing whatever you want, whenever you want, says K.C. Rondello, M.D., Clinical Associate Professor of Public Health & Emergency Management at Adelphi University. “It acknowledges that people have a life to live and aren’t going to hole themselves up at home,” Dr. Rondello tells Men’s Health.

Related: How Coronavirus Actually Behaves Inside Your Body

According to the World Health Organisation, you want to maintain at least one metre distance between yourself and others, especially if they are coughing or sneezing. Avoid public places like movie theaters, shopping centres, and stadiums.

You may be hearing the term for the first time, but societies have deployed the technique in the past, says Dr. Rondello. It’s particularly helpful when there’s no treatment or vaccine available for a rapidly spreading pathogen, he says.

Here’s why social distancing matters

If you’re healthy, you might think that you don’t have to limit your interactions with other people. After all, the risk of developing pneumonia or needing hospitalization from COVID-19 is low for the average healthy person, according to the NICD.

But limiting your social interactions reduces the risk of spreading the virus to people who may then spread it onto more people.

Research from previous pandemics show that this method works. In 2009, closing schools for 18 days in Mexico helped reduce transmission of H1N1 by 29 to 37 percent, according to a 2011 study published in PLOS Medicine.

Plus, social distancing reduces the strain on the healthcare system by limiting the number of people who are severely sick and need hospital care. A slower spread of the disease also gives researchers more time to develop treatments and vaccines.

Related: Your Phone Can Carry the Coronavirus for Up to 9 Days

That said, you can be cautious without letting the pandemic dictate your entire life, according to William Schaffner, M.D., and infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN.

There is no “right” way to practice social distancing

Empty store shelves and internet memes may lead you to believe you can never leave the house. This isn’t true.

“I think it’s kind of up to you to decide how much risk you want to put other people in and how much risk you want to acquire for yourself,” Dr. Schaffner tells Men’s Health. “There is not a transmission policeman out there.”

People who are older than 60 and individuals who are immunocompromised, meaning they have a difficult time fighting infections, are at greater risk says Dr. Schaffner. People at-risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 should limit their exposure to groups and even look into grocery delivery.

Related: Here’s Why Men Are Hit Harder By The New Coronavirus

But not everyone has access to grocery delivery or the freedom to work from home.

Here’s how to implement the method realistically:

At the shops

There’s no need to buy six month’s worth of toilet paper now.

In fact, stockpiling makes it more difficult for people to purchase essential items. However, you should head to the shops with a plan, says Dr. Rondello. Make a list of everything you need and purchase the items in the same trip instead of going to multiple stores on separate days. This reduces your exposure and helps you be more efficient, he says. Shopping during off-peak hours when stores aren’t crowded further reduces your risk of exposure to viruses.

“Along with social distancing, you’re going to implement good infection prevention,” says Dr. Rondello.

In other words, refrain from touching your face and wash your hands the minute you get home.

Related: Washing Your Hands Can Prevent Coronavirus, Here’s The Right Way To Do It

While using public transportation

Many businesses have implemented work from home strategies in response to the current pandemic. But not everyone has the luxury of remote work—and some of these people may need to use public transport.

“There are times when social distancing is not going to be possible. You’re going to do the best that you can,” says Dr. Rondello.

In a bus, taxi or train that means seeking out the place with the fewest amount of people. Again, it’s vital to pair this with all the other recommended ways to avoid getting sick: washing your hands, using hand sanitizer (in a pinch), and not touching your face.

In the gym

Working out at home may be your best bet. But if the weight room is a big part of your life, you can minimise your risk of heading to your local gym.

Related: Gym article

Dr. Rondello recommends visiting the gym during odd hours when it’s more likely to be empty. Be sure to wash your hands when you arrive and leave the gym. Wipe down all equipment before and after you use them. He even recommends using hand sanitizer during your work out.

Since the WHO recommends keeping at least one metre  of personal space, you’ll want to pick equipment that helps you meet that number. So, if the row of StairMasters are packed, choose a less crowded elliptical machine, for example.

For now, it’s best to skip group fitness classes if you can’t keep a one-metre of personal space, says Dr. Rondello.

Related: X Home Workouts To Do When You’re Stick Indoors

While hanging with friends

You’re probably wondering whether you need to sacrifice socialising at bars or restaurants for the sake of the pandemic.

“There is no wrong answer, and there is no right answer,” says Dr. Schaffner. “Nobody is saying to be a hermit.”

Similarly to the gym, this is a personal choice that can be adapted to suit your tolerance of risk.

According to Dr. Schaffner, walking in the park with a friend is less risky than sitting in a crowded enclosed bar.

If you want to play it safe, Dr. Rondello recommends catching up with friends and family over video chat instead of drinks or dinner.

Ultimately, there are no absolutes. You simply need to weigh the benefits versus the risk and make a personal choice about which strategies you want to employ, according to Dr. Rondello.

And remember, social distancing is about helping other individuals—not just yourself.

This article first appeared on menshealth.com

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