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How to social distance: What experts say is safe — and not safe — during the coronavirus outbreak

Exercising on your own is probably a better idea than heading to the gym, according to experts.
Exercising on your own is probably a better idea than heading to the gym, according to experts.Dina Rudick

Social-distancing has become the term-du-jour in this stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. Distancing, authorities tell us, will help us avoid getting sick and slow the disease’s spread.

But it’s cruel-sounding, like a command to disavow friends, and fun — an impression underscored in recent days as professional sports leagues announced they were suspending their seasons and as Governor Charlie Baker on Sunday evening prohibited gatherings of more than 25 people, including concerts and church.

Your 60-second guide to social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak
With information limited on how we should go about keeping our distance, the Globe asked a number of public health experts for their recommendations. (Video by Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Reporting by Dugan Arnett/Globe Staff, Animation by Brendan Lynch/Globe Staff)

But is it possible to carry on with life, even an enjoyable one, while also maintaining the recommended six feet of space from fellow humans? Can we go to the grocery store? What about the gym? Is even that too risky?

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With information limited on how we should go about keeping our distance, the Globe asked a number of public health experts to weigh in on what’s smart, what’s not, and how to tell the difference. Here’s what they recommend:

1. Ditch the crowded spin class for a trail run

The chief concern among most wary gym-goers in the time of coronavirus is likely to be the vast amount of shared equipment. But a bigger concern, says Erin D. Michos, associate director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is that it isn’t always possible to maintain a healthy distance from others at a busy gym or workout class.

“I’m more worried about not having that distance rather than wiping down equipment,” says Michos, who has stopped going to the gym herself, opting instead for outdoor running and walking.

It’s also important to consider the type of workout you choose to do; a half-hour on the elliptical, for instance, can be very different from a pick-up basketball game in which 10 people are sharing a ball and in close physical proximity for two straight hours.

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“If you have physical contact, and people are ill, the potential for exposure is greater,'' says Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a clinical professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. "So again, there are activities in which we should continue, and there are activities where we should say, ‘Do I really need do that tonight?’”

2. Six feet matters, but it’s also about whom you trust.

A night out with friends keeping a careful space of two yardsticks apart seems neither practical nor a great deal of fun. But that’s probably not the question to be asking yourself, says Leonard Marcus, co-director of the Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative.

In most cases, he says, our typical places of social refuge — restaurants, bars, movie theaters — are not where we want to be.

Marcus advocates limiting group interactions to people you’d trust to tell you if they are sick or might have been exposed to someone who is. “When you’re going to the movies, or a deli, you’re interacting with a bunch of strangers who aren’t going to tell you," he says.

3. Go to the grocery store, but mind how you get there.

At this point, walking or driving to the store to grab a few things shouldn’t pose much significant risk, says Dr. David Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at the Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine.

Traveling by public transportation to run the same errand?

“The trick with being on a crowded train is you can’t really space yourself from people,” says Hamer, who, for the record, has continued to take the bus to work.

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If you do find yourself on the T, take the same precautions that have been urged for weeks now: Wash your hands, avoid touching your face, consider carrying hand sanitizer.

“I don’t think people should stay at home fully, necessarily," he says. "But avoiding crowded spaces with poor air circulation is probably wise.”

4. Stay away from the doctor’s office unless you’re truly sick

At Johns Hopkins, Michos is already pushing all the patient work she can to the virtual realm.

“Healthy people shouldn’t come in for any elective procedures right now,” says Michos, who, in following the situation in Italy, has grown concerned about the potential for hospital overcrowding. "If they’re not sick, if they just want to talk about blood pressure or labs, a lot of it we’re moving to tele-medicine right now.

“I think everything should be postponed unless it’s mission critical.”

5. Hit the pause button on get-togethers, even smaller ones

As tough as it might be, it’s time to start postponing any upcoming birthday parties, baby showers, or trips.

“This is an unprecedented pandemic,” Michos explains. “And I think we need an unprecedented reaction to it.”

The good news is that, here in 2020, we have no shortage of ways to communicate — phone, Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, Instagram, Twitter, and plain, old-fashioned text. They are tools we didn’t have when enduring devastating outbreaks of the past, like the Spanish flu of 1918.

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Use them.

“Fortunately, unlike the 1918 epidemic, we actually have technology,” says Michos. “So we can stay in touch with people in ways that we could not before.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.