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As fear of coronavirus mounts, we’re turning into social-distancing cops

Nancy Marttila (left) and Lynn Bradbury live in the same apartment building but opted to meet on separate park benches in order to see each other on the Boston Common rather than walking together.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

If this pandemic has a command, surely it’s Stand Back!

In the Mount Auburn Cemeterythis weekend two women were spotted holding opposite ends of a 6-foot rope as they strolled the grounds. At Staples in Dorchester, where tape now marks 6-foot segments at the cash register, a woman whose foot was touching the line was told to step off. In East Boston, KO Catering and Pies has posted signs instructing customers to put their credit cards in a box on an outside table, and “then please, step the (expletive) back so we can grab it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned people that COVID-19 is thought to spread between people who are in close contact — within about 6 feet of each other. As cases and deaths mount — and even as “virus rebels” flout lockdowns — the 6-foot rule has led to a whole new world in Greater Boston and beyond.

Building managers have set up velvet ropes in front of concierge desks. Trader Joe’s has bouncers out front limiting the number of people who can go inside. “Six Feet for Safety!” read signs in the Arnold Arboretum.


On Sunday morning near the Longwood T stop, a couple was so eager to stay 6 feet from another couple passing on the sidewalk that they darted into the street, causing a slowdown in what little traffic there was, as if they were a flock of turkeys. The motorists honked, but the couple didn’t hustle off the roadway, more afraid of being breathed on than run over.

In this climate, rumors easily gain traction. This weekend the Steamship Authority sent out an alert asking passengers to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard to practice social distancing by staying in their cars, and to maintain a distance of 6 feet if they needed to leave their vehicles. But chatter on board the Martha’s Vineyard ferry had people wrongly believing the cruise line had locked the doors between the car deck and the upper deck. “We are not locking doors,” a spokesman e-mailed the Globe.


At this point in the health crisis the 6-foot rule is well known, but even so, many don’t observe it. Some are forced by employers to work in close quarters, and keep quiet out of fear and economic necessity. But others, even intelligent people, stand too close in conversation, or commit other COVID-19 offenses.

Over the weekend, when cooped-up Bostonians flocked to public spaces, the social-distancing police were out.

People practiced Falun Dafa on the Boston Common evenly spaced themselves out. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“Avoid the Esplanade!” @tomlau tweeted. “It’s a crowded mess. This is NOT social distancing. Joggers/runners the worst offenders; never mind 6 ft, several clipped me.”

A Newton resident, alarmed that walkers and runners were not practicing proper social distancing at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, e-mailed a dean at nearby Boston College. “Maybe it should be closed?!” she suggested. “Or at least signs posted that said it will be closed if people do not maintain 6 ft of distance.”

Wait a minute ... how far is 6 feet, anyway? Well, one answer is that it’s 6 feet, stupid. But that can be hard to visualize. In Italy, a man has been spotted wearing a social-distancing “doughnut," a large yellow saucer that he has suspended around his waist with two arm straps.


More practical is a mnemonic created by an infectious disease researcher, Victor Nizet, chief of the division of Host-Microbe Systems and Therapeutics at the University of California San Diego: Right = One Rock Unit (the 6-foot-5 Dwayne Johnson). Wrong = One Cruise Unit (the 5-foot-7 Tom Cruise).

Proximity tension even runs high on the dog walk, when goldendoodles lunging toward other goldendoodles threaten to bring their owners too close, or heaven forbid, a child tries to pet your dog.

A man jumped rope in the middle of an empty Frog Pond. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Stress also stalks shoppers at grocery stores, one of the few indoor spaces where people still congregate. Friends who spot each other often pass with a brief, joyless, funeral-style smile. Even supermarkets that keep shoppers apart at cash register lines leave them to their own defenses in the aisles.

At Whole Foods in Brighton on Saturday morning, a woman at the fish counter was standing so far back she practically needed binoculars to see the wild salmon. When another shopper moved into her personal space (as it’s currently defined), she panicked.

“I’m in line,” she said tensely, stepping even further back.

“I’m just looking,” the second woman said. “It’s all good.”

“No it’s not,” the first woman snarled.

Meanwhile, even as good citizenship dictates social distancing, Rev. Mary Eaton of the Common Cathedral, an outdoor interdenominational Christian church service that serves the homeless, is working hard to make sure it doesn’t translate into emotional distancing.

On Boston Common on Sunday her service went on as usual. Well, almost. A bottle of hand sanitizer sat on the portable altar, and when a congregant danced over to her, she kept him at arm’s length, very gently.


Globe correspondent Lucas Phillips contributed to this report.

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.