COVID Journals: social distancing

Social distancing.

It’s not that difficult to understand. It’s a set of easy practices that slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus. These include staying home, not physically mingling with people from other households and keeping at least six feet away from others when out in public. On paper, this isn’t at all complicated. Yet in practice, it appears to be difficult, if not impossible, for some people to do.

My observations are based on two scenarios: walking around the neighborhood and trips to the local grocery store.

I try to get outside for a daily walk. It clears the mind and soothes the spirits. However, it’s also a taxing exercise in navigating around other people. When I’m walking down the sidewalk and see someone coming towards me, I cut a wide berth, typically stepping a few feet off the sidewalk or even off the curb a bit if necessary. I’m astonished, however, by the many people I encounter who don’t make any effort at all. They’ll walk straight towards me, or worse, stop in the middle of the sidewalk to look at their phone, have a conversation with their companion or generally derp around doing whatever. Runners are the worst offenders. They barrel at me head-on or rush up from behind, brushing past with not even a performative nod to social distancing. One afternoon, I was walking down the middle of a closed street, when a runner left the sidewalk, entered the street and ran directly to the middle of the road, where I was. I moved out of the way, and she ran past, seemingly oblivious. This situation happens again and again and again. It’s gotten to the point that I mostly walk in alleys just to avoid these encounters. I might add that most of the folks ignoring social distancing courtesies are usually not wearing masks.

On the rare occasions I venture into a park, I’ve been surprised to see so many groups of people –roughly five or six or more– hanging out in close physical proximity to each other. Looking at them, you’d never know we were in the middle of a public health crisis. Optics-wise, it’s just another afternoon in the park. This may be an unfair assumption, but I’m thinking that the people in a lot of these groups don’t all live together. This obviously defeats the purpose of the stay-at-home order.

My neighborhood grocery store is another hot spot for bad behavior around social distancing. I’m consistently shocked at how many fellow shoppers disregard social distancing completely. They wander down the aisles and linger within inches. They stand right behind me at the check-out. It’s particularly puzzling at the grocery store because they literally tape off sections to mark the perimeters for safe distancing. These lines are impossible to miss. But somehow, many people do. I try to limit trips to the store and only go very early when it’s less crowded. Regardless, I still run into these problems.

While I’m not sure that the use of masks quite falls under the heading of social distancing, it’s relevant to the overall effort of stopping the spread of the virus. I think there’s still a fair amount of confusion around masks, such as who should wear them, the guidelines for wearing them and whether or not their usage is mandated or merely suggested. The latter question, of course, depends on where you live. In Washington, the use of masks isn’t required by law but is strongly encouraged. I follow practices recommended by a physician friend.  I wear a mask when I’m inside a store or pharmacy. I don’t wear one outside unless I inadvertently find myself in close proximity to other people. I always have one on hand for this situation. My understanding is that by wearing a mask, I’m reducing the chances of my spreading the virus to others if, by chance, I’m a carrier.  I also understand that wearing a mask is less effective for protecting myself but that it can have some efficacy in this regard.

Back to the neighborhood grocery store, I’d estimate that roughly 50% of the shoppers I see are wearing masks. I also notice that the people who aren’t wearing masks are usually not adhering to social distancing practices either or seeming to take any precautions at all. The other day, I watched a guy stand in front of the ice cream section for an eternity, pulling out pint after pint to read the label before putting it back on the rack and repeating the process. He wasn’t wearing a mask. This is just one example of the types of things I see out there. I’m not sure if these are a matter of willful stupidity, defiance or straight-up cluelessness.

There are many who feel that the practice of social distancing is an infringement of their rights. We’ve all seen news stories from the protests at various state capitals across the country. We’ve also seen footage of people swarming beaches and packing restaurants in areas that have allowed re-opening. The disdain for science is astonishing and disappointing. And the sentiment that COVID-19 is some kind of left-wing conspiracy is incomprehensible. Meanwhile, the number of cases continue to rise.

Lest I come off as a judgmental crab, I totally get that social distancing, especially for this indefinite and extended period of time, is hard. It goes against our very nature. Human beings are wired to be social and to have regular interactions with other human beings. It’s biologically imprinted. Social distancing puts us at odds with our most basic instincts. And it’s especially difficult to continue these practices when the threat of not doing so isn’t readily apparent. (Therein lies the irony in this whole situation.) But I also respect the scientists who have spent their entire careers studying immunology, infectious diseases and pandemics. They understand how viruses work and what the best practices are for mitigating the spread. I’m grateful to know there are things I can do (or refrain from doing) that can help. I’m okay with any temporary inconvenience or discomfort.

Unfortunately, until there are consistent and common practices in all communities across the country, the virus will continue to spread.  I fear this will only create more suffering, perpetuate closures and delay the return to normal, whatever that will ultimately look like. Even observing the microcosm community of Seattle, I’m not seeing a convincing collective effort. I’ve witnessed too many deviations, which is both frustrating and discouraging. I’ll continue to do my part, for whatever that’s worth, but am not optimistic that we’ll ever get in requisite sync for social distancing to work. I believe our only hope is a vaccine.

I look forward to the day when we can all be together again; hanging out by fire pits, having dinner with friends, enjoying live music and traveling across the country to visit loved ones. I can’t wait for the day when we can hold hands, kiss checks and share warm and heartfelt embraces. I long for all of these and everything else that connects us and affirms life. But until that day comes, I’ll be keeping my distance.

Neighborhood duck. Get too close & he’ll peck you on the head. #socialdistancing