What is “social distancing” and how do we do it?

tape measure

Social distancing is a strategy to slow the spread of disease by, as the name implies, keeping our distance from each other in social situations. It means we avoid crowded places, don’t touch each other and stay at least six feet apart from other people when we are out in public.

Sounds easy, right? Who goes around randomly touching other people or crowding up with strangers on purpose?

Turns out, we all do and kicking the habit takes some thought.

Shaking hands

Shaking hands is such a tradition in the United States that even in the middle of a pandemic, we still do it.

It’s a tough habit to break especially when meeting new people and in business settings. Hugging close friends is another act that is hard to stop, since we do it so naturally so often.

Until March 2020, most of us never realized how many times a day we touch other people – not just to shake hands or hug, but to slap a colleague on the back, touch a friend’s arm when they’re feeling sad, or to reach out to admire a piece of jewelry on someone’s hand.

But it’s time to let go. Instead of shaking hands, hugging, kissing and slapping backs, just wave, nod or smile. Some newer greetings have been trending in the last few weeks as well.

  • The elbow bump has become the most popular and while it does bring people into closer contact than is recommended, it’s much better than shaking
  • Spock’s “live long and prosper” hand gesture from “Star Trek” is always a classic.
  • The Wakanda salute (making fists with your arms crossed over your chest) from “Black Panther” has been seen
  • And then there’s the good old-fashioned Victorian bow and In the modern age, it’s not gender-specific; the first person to move bows, the respondent curtseys.

Give one of them a try. Be silly, have fun, just keep your hands to yourself!

Wash, wash, wash, wash, wash. Rinse and repeat.

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. As so many people have discovered lately, 20 seconds is a long time to scrub and count. Try making it fun by singing a 20-second song as you lather.

  • The Happy Birthday song, sung twice
  • The ABC song
  • “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”
  • The chorus to Beyoncé’s “Love on Top”
  • The chorus to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”
  • Queen’s chorus “We will, we will rock you” chanted three times
  • The chorus to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”

And thanks to a story on National Public Radio, we found a hand-washing song website where you can type in your own favorite song and find out how many lines equal 20 seconds. You can even print out a poster of the lyrics with handwashing instructions to tape to your bathroom mirror.

Work meetings

Office workers have been complaining for years that “this meeting could have been an email.” The good news is, now it can be! In-person meetings are out and teleconferencing, emails and phone calls are in. If you can’t avoid an in-person meeting, keep it short and stay in a large room where participants can stay at least six feet from each other. Don’t forget to wipe the table and chairs down with bleach wipes before and after the meeting and don’t shake hands! Sound like a lot to ask? Try meeting by video chat instead. Or just send an email.


When we think of “crowds” we think of the press of people all leaving a sports arena at the same time. We think of mosh pits, of concerts, of throngs pushing their way into a Black Friday sale.

But in a pandemic, a “crowd” is just 10 people who are closer than six feet from each other. That means restaurants, weddings, church, waiting rooms, gyms, subway trains and sometimes even grocery stores.

How do you avoid all that? In many cities now, you don’t have much choice as events are being canceled and theaters and gyms are shutting down. If you live in a place where you do have a choice, try to figure out how to do the activity without the people. Instead of going to the gym, do your exercises at home or go for a run in the park. At work, avoid the breakroom and cafeteria. Don’t eat in restaurants at all — instead call for delivery or order take-out. Many restaurants that didn’t offer takeout before are doing it now so check with your favorites to see if takeout or even curbside delivery are their new norm. And instead of grocery shopping in person, use online order and delivery if you can. If you need to go in person, pick the least busy times, clean the cart handles with bleach wipes (provided at the front of most grocery stores) and sanitize your hands as soon as you’re done. Try to plan your grocery shopping in advance so you can cut down on the number of times you need to go out and you move through the store quickly.

In all cases, stay at least six feet away from the people around you, keep your hands off your face and if you have to cough or sneeze, do it into a tissue or your elbow, not your hand.

Look but don’t touch!

Try to avoid frequently-touched surfaces like door handles. If you can push the door open with your foot, do it. If you can turn the public bathroom faucet on and off with your elbow or with a paper towel, do it. If you can walk up and down public steps without running your hand along the railing, do it. Try not to use cash – it passes through too many hands each day so use a credit or debit card instead. Carry your own pen for signing receipts instead of using the store’s pen

that gets picked up 100 times an hour. And when you’re done, always, always, always wash your hands.

See the world from your home

Of course, the best advice is to just stay home for a while if you can. Watch TV. Play a game, read a book or turn on your computer and check out one of the hundreds of free resources being offered to keep people inside during the pandemic. Your favorite bands are streaming free concerts. Newspaper sites have dropped their paywalls, museums are offering free virtual tours, aquariums and zoos have cameras streaming the animals 24/7 and the major movie studios are releasing this spring’s movies to the Internet for immediate rentals, rather than putting them in the theaters. Stay home, stay safe, and wash your hands!