What exactly is ‘social distancing?’ Hint: You are allowed to go outside.

March 17, 2020
to people stand six feet apart pretending to give each other high five, demonstrating what is social distancing.
Photo: Getty Images.

In order to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, public health experts are now advising people in many parts of the country to practice “social distancing.”

So, what exactly does social distancing mean?

Of course, the restrictions and guidelines are different in various regions around the country, depending on how severe the outbreak is.

But for those who get cabin fever easily, the good news is you don’t have to stay cooped up.

man in a wheelchair outside by himself, an example of what is social distancing.
What is social distancing? It doesn’t mean you have to stay indoors. Just stay about 6 feet from other people. Photo: iStock.

You can spend time outdoors as long as you respect other people and stay about 6 feet away from other people.

“There’s no magic number. But, the odds of breathing in infected, aerosolized particles drops as a function of distance from the person who is coughing or sneezing. Six feet is an arbitrary distance, but it’s a good rule of thumb,” said Dr. Kenneth Tyler, Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the department’s Louise Baum Endowed Professor.

Tyler sees patients and supervises medical students at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Aurora. He’s a professor of immunology and microbiology with sub-specialties in virology and infectious diseases.

Doctors and public health experts are doing all they can to prevent people from getting COVID-19, the illness associated with the new coronavirus.

“If you don’t have a treatment, the best thing you can do is to minimize the chance of exposure. That’s why social distancing is so helpful. We don’t want large gatherings and, if possible, we don’t want people being close to each other in enclosed spaces,” Tyler said.

“If you’re not exposed, you’re not going to get it,” Tyler said. “Social distancing is one of the most reasonable things you can do.”

Here in Colorado, now that the new coronavirus is spreading widely, especially in mountain resort communities, Gov. Jared Polis has shut down ski areas for at least a week while closing gyms, theaters, bars, casinos and in-house service at restaurants for at least 30 days. Many public entities like libraries, schools and cultural entities also shuttered indefinitely.

Elsewhere in the world, restrictions are more severe. Italians must stay in their homes and some have taken to singing from their balconies and windows to cheer one another up.

In northern California this week, county health officials asked about 6 million people in six of the most affected counties to stay home for weeks, except to complete necessary functions like showing up as essential workers, getting food or picking up medicine.

a white and caramel colored Jack Russell terrier mix named Magnolia poses during a stroll at Chautauqua Park in Boulder.
Walking your dog, in some places, is another option during social distancing as long as you stay 6 feet away from other people. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

In the affected California counties, residents are allowed to walk their dogs, as long as they stay at least 6 feet away from other people.

Dr. Daniel Pastula strongly recommends that all Coloradans avoid mass gatherings and try to stay about 6 feet apart when they’re outdoors or at stores.

For all updates and to read more articles about the new coronavirus, please visit uchealth.org/covid19

Pastula has worked on the front lines of epidemics around the world, including outbreaks of illnesses like West Nile and Zika and a rare polio-like illness called Acute Flaccid Myelits.

Pastula has assisted local public health officials in Summit County in recent days as they have tried to fight the growing epidemic there. He is now back home and minimizing social contact for 14 days as he follows current guidelines from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

Pastula is a neurohospitalist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and an associate professor of neurology, infectious diseases and epidemiology for the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Colorado School of Public Health.

He did part of his training in epidemiology and infectious diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pastula said it’s safe to be outdoors.

“If you stay about 6 feet away from people, then it’s fine to go for a walk or hike or play on the lawn,” Pastula said.

Playgrounds can be much more challenging. While most children have not become severely ill with the new coronavirus, also called COVID-19, they can have mild cases without known it and can become carriers who transmit the virus to others.

staying safe from COVID-19 in the U.S. by washing your hands
One of the best ways to stay safe from infectious diseases is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 second. Photo: Getty Images.

Pastula said if parents take their children to playgrounds now, they have to practice excellent hand hygiene.

“Obviously, the problem at playgrounds is the surfaces. Theoretically, infectious droplets could be on surfaces,” he said.

Parents should help children wash their hands frequently (soap and water is best; hand sanitizer can be used as a back-up) since it’s very difficult for kids to avoid touching their faces. And, parents should wash their own hands frequently, while teaching their children to do the same.

If at all possible, avoid large crowds. Both state and federal officials have urged a nationwide halt to gatherings of 50 people or more. And, President Donald Trump issued guidelines this week encouraging people to skip or cancel events with more than 10 people.

“The idea behind all of this is to limit the spread,” Pastula said. “Infectious droplets are what transmit this virus. You can get infected in two ways. The first is if someone coughs close to you or directly onto your face or mouth, though the droplets don’t travel more than 6 feet usually. That’s why social distancing is so important,” Pastula said.

“The second way infectious droplets get transmitted is when they’re on a surface, then someone touches that surface, then touches their face,” he said.

“We’re trying to break that cycle as well. That’s why hand washing, avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands, and cleaning frequently-touched surfaces daily is so important.”

People who are sick should stay home and isolate themselves from others in their homes.

But, for those without symptoms, “it should be fine to go for a hike, a bike ride, a run, a walk, to the grocery store, or even to your local restaurant for take-out. Just try to stay 6 feet away from others when you’re out in public as best you can. And wash your hands!”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.