Even though we've all been social distancing for months now, I still find myself asking, "Am I doing this right?" I think I have the rules down: I'm mostly staying inside. When I go out, I wear a face mask. I try to keep my distance from others. But nonetheless, the practice feels... slippery.
I'm not alone. One reason many of us are feeling confused about how exactly to social distance is because it seems like the rules are constantly shifting — especially right now, as many states begin to loosen restrictions. Suddenly, local governments seem to be signing off on activities that we'd previously been told were verboten.
For example, in Kentucky, the governor is allowing groups of ten people to congregate starting this Friday. But local news outlet WKYT is emphasizing that doesn’t mean social distancing is over. “Public health leaders are asking people to social distance during these gatherings,” WKYT explained. They recommend that folks hold the gatherings outdoors, wear masks, and avoid sharing food or drinks.
Meanwhile, on May 13, The Red Cross warned that “everyone” should stay home, and the The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official recommendation is that we “avoid gatherings of any size outside your household, such as [in] a friend’s house, parks, restaurants, shops, or any other place.”
It's easy to see why people have questions: Is it okay to see my friends, or should I hold off unless it's really necessary? Should I be listening to my governor, the local news, or the CDC?
Another example of coronavirus safety messaging that can cause confusion: Domino Park, a privately owned park in Brooklyn, NY, went to the effort to paint circles in the grass that are spaced six feet apart, to make it easier for people who want to relax on the grass to socially distance. It's easy to see why people may infer that the circles are tacitly encouraging people to hang out outside. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, however, previously expressed dismay at the density of people congregating in green spaces, though he didn't order anyone to stay inside. Meanwhile, the comments below social media posts that depict the loungers are equal parts encouraging and brutal: "I appreciate the leadership of the NYC government to open the city in a safe, evidence based manner. I would live to be in one if those circles — great work #nyc," writes one commenter, while another simply says: "This is insanity. Stay at home!"
Those sorts of comments bring up another point: There's societal pressure around social distancing that feeds into the uncertainty. If you leave your house for no reason other than to take a walk, or if you remove your mask for a second while you're outside and in an isolated spot to take a deep breath of unfiltered air, or if you pause at the grocery store to say hello to a friend, you may find a stranger screaming at you. We're afraid to mess up and be shamed — even if the folks scolding us are working off outdated or incorrect information.
Adding to the cognitive dissonance is the fact that many of us are suffering from “social distancing fatigue” and are being more laissez faire about the practice these days, explains Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a senior clinical consultant at McLean Hospital. “When everyone started sheltering in place, it was novel and there was an expectation it would end,” she says. But now that about two months have passed, the novelty has worn off and we’re just feeling cooped up. “A lot of people are getting more antsy to get out,” she says. More people may be inclined to latch onto sources of information that green-light the least restrictive social distancing measures, without doing the due diligence to find out what's really being recommended.
Luckily, experts are realizing that social distancing confusion is a real problem, and they're offering some tips for cutting through the noise — as well as ideas for how to continue to make quarantining feel relevant, even as we all get a little (let's be honest, a lot) tired of it.
Prioritize the CDC's rules
It's always smart to keep abreast of your local guidelines, but ultimately, the best route is to heed CDC warnings, says Paul Pottinger, MD, a professor specializing in infectious disease at the University of Washington School of Medicine. States work off local epidemiology and transmission data. But, as we know, coronavirus can infiltrate a previously untouched community and spread super quickly, he notes. The CDC offers general best-practice tips for all Americans. They may be more restrictive than your local guidelines — but it's better to err on the side of caution right now, Dr. Pottinger says.
Remember what's at stake
“Some parts of the country have fortunately had fewer cases — New York City has had many, for instance, while Tulsa has had less,” Dr. Pottinger says. “That's great for Oklahoma. But remember, we never really know what’s going to happen… The reason why people should continue to do these basic social distancing things the CDC advises isn’t because they’ve had a lot of infections in these areas, it’s because they might be getting them right now.”
Remember that everyone's on edge, and give people the benefit of the doubt. "We need to figure out how to support each other through this," Dr. Pottinger says. "If I saw somebody walking down the street without a mask or if someone got too close to me in a grocery store, I might say, 'Hey, I'm worried about you — I don't want to spread anything to you, that's why I'm wearing a mask and keeping six feet.' If we socialize it that way, maybe it's less confrontational, and there will be less shaming." If you're the one being shamed in an aggressive manner, don't engage, and get yourself to someplace safe ASAP.
Remind yourself that you're doing a good deed
Social distancing may not be fun, but when you participate in it, you’re a real-life hero who’s working toward the greater good. “If we think of ourselves as trapped and isolated, we’re going to maybe discount the social interactions we have online or on Zoom as ‘not good enough’,” Coyne says. But if we think about the practice as something we’re deciding to do for the benefit of the greater good, the state of self-quarantine will feel like less of a prison and more of a choice we’re making out of the goodness in our hearts.
Try to stay positive
If you can, buy yourself or make a fun, comfy, or fashionable face mask rather than using something you think is bland, ugly, or uncomfortable. Think of the six-feet rule as a challenge, rather than an inconvenience, and brainstorm creative ways to stay connected from a distance. These little shifts can make a big difference in how committed you feel to social distancing.