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Ask the Experts: Social distancing and mask-wearing during COVID-19

May 4, 2020

Social distancing, fabric masks and stay-at-home orders have all become regular topics of conversation in the past couple of months. But what does all this mean, and how can you do what’s best for your own health and safety as well as the health and safety of those around you?

Three Indiana University experts – Jonathon Crystal, Provost Professor in IU’s College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences; Shandy Dearth, lecturer in the Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI; and Graham McKeen, assistant university director of public and environmental health for IU Environmental Health and Safety – have weighed in on these questions.

Jonathon Crystal
Jonathon Crystal
Shandy Dearth
Shandy Dearth
Graham McKeen
Graham McKeen

Q: What does social distancing look like? What’s OK and not OK?

Crystal: Transmission of the novel coronavirus can be reduced when social distancing is high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 6 feet between you and people that you encounter, but the greater the distance, the less the risk of transmission. For example, 9 feet is better than 6 feet.

You should practice social distancing with anyone outside your core social unit, meaning the people you live with. This includes friends, close relatives who don’t live with you, co-workers, etc. The only people you should be within 6 feet of are those living in the same household as you. We succeed in keeping up our social distance by staying at home in our family unit.

Q: Just going to visit a few friends once isn’t going to hurt anything at this point, right?

Dearth: Actually, the virus can be transmitted in just one visit. We know that many people who are positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic and can still spread the virus to other people. Just going to visit a group one time increases the chances of the whole group sharing and spreading the virus. So, think about your friends (and yourself) and stick with Zoom/FaceTime/phone calls for now. You will have plenty of chances to catch up face to face when this wave is over (but not yet).

Q: It seems like fewer people are keeping up with various public health measures like social distancing. Why is it so hard to sustain this behavior over time?

Crystal: We are all bombarded with the message that we should practice social distancing and avoid touching our faces, but each of us has likely seen striking violations of the goal. Most of the time we intend to practice social distancing, but sometimes we forget to implement this intention. Behavioral scientists are a unique resource for changing human behavior in ways that may reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Recommendations that are informed by perception, action and cognition, as well as persuasion science, learning and behavior modification, can help individuals maintain behavior over time. For example, you may see your neighbors practice social distancing and/or wearing a mask out in public. If you don’t also practice these behaviors, you may feel that your neighbor may think of you as a “cheater.”

Q: What are your top tips for maintaining social distancing?

Crystal: One strategy to promote social distancing is to imagine that you are in a scenario such as a grocery store. Now imagine seeing someone and keeping your distance up. Form the plan that when I see someone, I will keep my social distance up. Another strategy: Imagine lying down and stretching your arms above your head. If you can touch someone at this distance, then you are too close.

Q: Why should we continue social distancing even when we’re starting to see the curve flatten?

Dearth: While the numbers of people being hospitalized are slowing and that line is flattening, we continue to see hundreds of cases reported in Indiana each day. We need to see a downward trend in transmission before social distancing can be relaxed. We need to stick to essential services for now so we don’t make that hospital line jump back up and cause a surge among health care providers.

Q: Do I need to keep wearing a mask in public?

McKeen: Currently, the Indiana State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all recommend wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing is harder to maintain, like at the grocery store. Because this virus can be spread asymptomatically (you don’t have symptoms) and pre-symptomatically (a couple of days before your symptoms start), wearing a mask can prevent invisible transmission and be seen as a sign of respect to others, especially those that may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.

I think we should all get used to wearing them now and for the foreseeable future, as it will be an important tool for control until we can get a widespread treatment, a vaccine or robust disease containment measures.

Q: If a fabric mask isn’t going to totally protect me from getting COVID-19, why do I even need one?

Dearth: The fabric masks are encouraged to prevent infected people from passing on the infection, not to prevent the wearer getting infected. Since we know we can have the virus and not have symptoms, it helps to prevent us from accidentally sharing the virus with the grocery store workers and other people in the community providing us critical services during this time.

Q: How do I properly wear a mask?

McKeen: The goal of a mask is to block the spread of disease by preventing both the inhalation of infectious droplets and their exhalation into the surrounding air and environment. Masks should fit decently snug, but comfortably around side of the face and must cover both the nose and the mouth. It should be secured with ties or ear loops and allow for breathing without restriction. To be most protective, masks should have multiple layers of fabric and be made out of something that can withstand repeated laundering.

While there is not a lot of science on the effectiveness of cloth masks, their use is absolutely better than using no protection at all, and they do well at protecting others from you.

Q: Should I wear a mask outside?

McKeen: Being outside provides much more dispersal and rapid clearance of things like viruses in the air, so the risk of exposure is much less. However, if you think you might come close to someone while you are out, or are in a densely populated area, like an urban area or a campus, then yes, you should wear a mask outside. It’s really all about avoiding those face-to-face interactions right now.

Wearing a mask also does not mean that we should stop or ease physical distancing (staying at least 6 feet away from someone), as physical distancing is the best tool we have at the moment.


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Amanda Roach

Executive Director of Media Relations & Editorial Content

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