Is 6 feet enough space for social distancing?

Two women keep 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart as they speak to each other from adjacent park benches amidst the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, in the centre of York, northern England on March 19, 2020.
Two women keep 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart as they speak to each other from adjacent park benches amidst the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, in the centre of York, northern England on March 19, 2020. (Image credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

By now, you've probably heard that to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, people need to adopt social distancing measures — including remaining at least 6 feet (about 1.8 meters) apart from anyone they encounter outside their homes. Where does that number come from? And how should you be applying it in your life? 

The reason we need to maintain this kind of distance from each other at all is because of how easily the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the microbe responsible for the illness, spreads between people. It can theoretically remain viable in aerosols  for 3 hours, can be transmitted through contaminated surfaces, and it easily spreads through coughing and sneezing. The 6 feet of distance is designed to put up a roadblock to  the aerosolized and droplet methods of transmission. But that standard is best understood as a reference point — not a hard line beyond which you are absolutely protected, said Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist at Temple University.  And another expert told Live Science that that distance is likely not enough to be protected from the virus.

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"It's great to keep that distance between yourself and people you don't live with in outdoor settings, and it should be seen as an absolute minimum for indoor settings," when outside of your home, Johnson said.

When moving around outdoors, she said, 6 feet is a good minimum distance at which to pass other people, if you can't give them a wider berth. In indoor settings (think the grocery store), she said, it's more of an "absolute minimum."

"Six feet is the average distance that respiratory droplets from a sneeze or cough travel before they settle and are no longer likely to be inhaled by other people. I have seen estimates for social distancing of up to 10 feet if someone sneezes quite hard, [or] does not cover their sneeze [or] cough," she said. "This allows those particles a little more distance to settle so that you are not breathing them in. As long as someone's not outwardly ill, though, you should be safe maintaining a 6-foot distance."

Proper social distancing, Johnson said, means not just keeping the minimum distance but thinking about how the need to maintain that distance affects others around you.

"You should indeed try to maintain this distance even when passing someone on the sidewalk. Several supermarkets have marked off 6-foot distances in their lines to ensure that people are social distancing," she said. "My recommendation is that people absolutely maintain 6-foot distance from people not in their household when at all possible. Give people a wide berth at the grocery store or pharmacy. Be cognizant of how close you are standing in line. Quickly make your shopping selections so that the next person can select theirs while maintaining social distance."

That said, according to Johnson, it may be possible in certain settings for people to interact as long as they maintain significant social distancing.

Asked by Live Science about stories of people meeting in empty parks to chat while keeping apart, Johnson said, "You should be fine six feet apart talking for an extended period of time as long as no one is outwardly ill. This distance allows any inadvertent spittle to settle to the ground before reaching the other person, reducing the likelihood of asymptomatic transmission."

Still, that's not something she'd be comfortable with in all situations, she said.

"Personally, though, I would only sit and talk for an extended period at 6 feet if I were outdoors, just for my own peace of mind," she said in an email, adding, "If someone is outwardly ill, you should ask them to isolate at home until they feel better (regardless of the ailment), and maintain 10 feet of space when asking them to do so to preserve your own health."

Not everyone is sure that the 6 foot measure is enough for non-outwardly ill, however. And there's at least some reason to be skeptical; for instance, a case of widespread transmission in a choir practice in Washington raises the question of whether SARS-CoV-2 can be spread via tiny aerosols, which can stay suspended in air for long periods. If that's the case, particles could potentially travel more than 6 feet before drying out, as Live Science previously reported

What's more, even large droplets of mucus expelled with extreme force (as when coughing or sneezing), or carried by the wind can travel farther than 6 feet before falling, reported

"Six feet is probably not safe enough," Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global security and the head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute in Australia, told Live Science in an email. "The 3-6 foot rule is based on a few studies from the 1930s and 1940s, which have since been shown to be wrong — droplets can travel further than 6 feet. Yet hospital infection control experts continue to believe this rule. It's like the flat-Earth theory — anyone who tries to discuss the actual evidence is shouted down by a chorus of believers."

So what's the takeaway?  The best way to ensure your safety is to stay indoors as much as possible. Step out as needed for responsible trips to collect food and medicine, or, if possible, brief exercise in low-density outdoor spaces. Homemade masks, regular hand-washing and other steps may help reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission if you must venture out. But the only really sure way to prevent yourself from getting infected is staying indoors and away from other people. This is true whether you're in New York, Washington or Kansas, or anywhere else in the United States.

Originally published on Live Science

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Rafi Letzter
Staff Writer
Rafi joined Live Science in 2017. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism. You can find his past science reporting at Inverse, Business Insider and Popular Science, and his past photojournalism on the Flash90 wire service and in the pages of The Courier Post of southern New Jersey.
  • Careers Mark
    actually social is distancing is recommended because this virus is transferring from one person to another, so 1 meter is compulsory to not to be in range of a person coughing particles. which can infect you.
    Corona virus is indeed a virus which is very danger
  • Tommy Shenanigans
    While the experts are measuring safe distances the "experts" at CDC have recommended only those infected to wear masks or respirator masks. Now they're backtracking and saying since peeps are walking around not knowing they have it maybe we'll rethink it. They also admitted they previously did not recommend them so there wouldn't be a run on them so healthcare workers would not run out....since there will be many more patients since CDC recommends not wearing masks! News flash: the CDC has been putting out faulty recomendeations along with their faulty test kits. Now add OSHA who's guidance also cares not about virus deaths but rather employer liability for allowing it! We have idiots in charge. The sooner you recognize this and disobey the safer you'll be. TAKE A RESPIRATOR RV MASK instead of a tape measure to the store!!
  • dwaring
    You write about the studies from the 30's and 40's and say that they have been shown to be wrong. Could you post references please. I would like to learn more about the original studies and the studies that refute them. I am not doubting your conclusion I'd just like some references if I am going to pass this information on.
  • Martin C
    The general advice is to self-isolate and not practice social distancing.

    Social distancing is the fall back when self-isolation is not possible, such as when exercising or essential shopping.

    It stands to reason that the closer you are to other people, the greater the risk, but the safest course of action is to self-isolate and appreciate that anything else is introducing some sort of risk.

    The distance is of course only relevant if someone is infected, and then probably only a real issue if they are showing symptoms and sneezing.

    We can all play the "is it enough" game, those that want to fully insure themselves will not have any contact with other people, and for times when contact is unavoidable, then it is a sliding scale of risk.

    Distance is just one factor, infection rate, surfaces, weather conditions, time in contact, masks, types of mask, area of confinement are some but by no means all, contributing to the overall risk when coming into contact with other people.
  • Sanjay Ramaswamy
    admin said:
    By now, you've probably heard that to slow the COVID-19 epidemic, people need to stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart from each other. Here's why, and how it works.

    Is 6 feet enough space for social distancing? : Read more
    3 days back I was sitting at home and my dad who is 20 feet away from me sneezed hard. The wind is flowing in my direction and I felt the droplets fall on my hand. Then I realized that the normal 6 feet distance isn't enough and I made myself clear that whenever I go outside for groceries or any essentials I need to wear a mask even if the store is just 10 feet away from my house. If someone on the road who has corona sneezes and the wind blows in our direction there are high chances that even though the man is 30 feet away from you, the wind might carry the droplets. When dust particles are carried by wind before rain why can't the droplets be carried too? Also, make sure that you wear any glasses so that you can stop letting the virus entering your eyes.
  • Martin C
    Why is it so difficult for people to understand?

    The most effective defense towards preventing contacting the Covid-19 virus is through self-isolation.

    Where self-isolation is not possible then people are introducing degrees of risk.

    Distance is one aspect, how close you are to an infected person will increase the risk of catching the virus, so keeping 6 meters apart presents less risk than keeping 1 meter.

    The environmental conditions are also a factor, being 2 meters distance outside presents less risk than 2 meters in a confined space.

    Time also is a factor, spending ten minutes with someone, at 2 meters presents more risk than one minute.

    Wearing masks also is a factor, one person wearing a mask presents less risk than no one wearing a mask, and two people wearing a mask is better than one person, and the type of mask also is a factor, as is eye protection.

    Everyone should now have a reasonable understanding of the risks, they really shouldn't need to rely on some arbitrary number, if they want to reduce the risk - then self-isolate - everything else increases the risk by degrees.