What to Know About Social Distancing

A NewYork-Presbyterian infectious disease specialist explains why social distancing is an important tool to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Image of four people standing 6 feet apart, with a red arrow and text indicating the distance from each other.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “social distancing” by now — either on social media, from family or friends, or from health authorities — and might have questions about what it is and how it works.

Put simply, social distancing is the idea that to slow the spread of the highly contagious new coronavirus, you need to maintain a certain distance from people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends social distancing as part of its strategy to stop community spread of COVID-19, and the White House, in its most recent guidance, supports this tactic by recommending things like working from home if possible and avoiding restaurants and gatherings of groups of 10 people or more.

Health Matters spoke to Dr. David Goldberg, an internist and infectious disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Westchester and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, to ask him to explain why social distancing is important in the fight against COVID-19 and how you can incorporate this practice into your daily life.

Why do we need to practice social distancing?
Most coronaviruses, including the new coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, are spread by respiratory droplets produced by coughing or sneezing. Research indicates that respiratory droplets do not travel more than 6 feet, so it is recommended to keep a distance of at least 6 feet between you and other people to help stop the spread of this virus.

Is it OK to go outside for a walk or take my pet to the park?
Yes, but try not to come within 6 feet of another person. For example, a walk in a large park is fine, but not a walk on a city street, where it can be more crowded. Avoid large social gatherings, and as much as possible avoid close physical contact with strangers if you have to take public transportation to and from work.

If I go someplace essential like the grocery store or pharmacy, where it will be impossible to keep a good distance from people, how do I stay safe?
Try to limit your trips to the grocery store or pharmacy as much as possible. Plan ahead and buy the food and medicine you’ll need for at least two weeks. And go during off-peak times so it’s easier to keep your distance from others. Wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.

It’s recommended that people not shake hands but instead bump elbows. In terms of social distancing, is this a safe or recommended practice?
You should avoid unnecessary physical contact with people. Elbow bumps are probably OK, but it’s better not to touch at this time.

Do I need to practice social distancing in my home?
If anyone in your home is sick or has displayed symptoms and has a possible coronavirus infection, yes. They should stay in a separate room as much as possible and use a separate bathroom, if available, and wear a face mask when around others, according to the CDC. If your living space makes it difficult to keep a 6-foot distance, stay as far apart as you can and continue to practice good hygiene by washing hands frequently, sanitizing surfaces as often as possible, and coughing into tissues or your elbow.

Why aren’t we advised to practice social distancing during flu season?
We have a seasonal flu vaccine and known treatments for the flu, but we don’t yet have the same tools for COVID-19. The flu also appears to be much less lethal than COVID-19. We are experiencing a rapidly spreading pandemic with COVID-19, and minimizing contact with people is an important tool for stopping it.

When will health authorities know that it’s safe to be closer to people again?
Unfortunately, we don’t know. We’ll have to see how this evolves, in the U.S. as well as other countries. What we do know is right now, social distancing and practicing good hygiene are some of the best ways to slow the spread of this new coronavirus.

David M. Goldberg, M.D., is an internist and infectious disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Westchester and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is board-certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases and has a special interest in travel medicine, Lyme disease, and community-acquired infections.

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Additional Resources

  • Click here to learn what steps to take if you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus.

  • If you have concerns regarding COVID-19, please call NewYork-Presbyterian’s hotline at 646-697-4000. This hotline is a public service to provide information only and not diagnose, treat, or render a medical opinion.

  • If you are not feeling well, consider using NewYork-Presbyterian’s Virtual Urgent Care for non-life-threatening symptoms such as fever, cough, upset stomach, or nausea. Learn more by visiting nyp.org/urgentcare.