“Social distancing,” long a tool to keep epidemics at bay, has become the etiquette of the coronavirus era.
Keeping people from getting too close, by canceling sports events, closing schools and working from home, is spreading across the country as cases of Covid-19 grow at an increasing rate in this country and worldwide.
Because the virus is contagious before a person shows symptoms — fever, coughing, difficulty breathing — even a young, healthy person grabbing a beer at the bar could endanger others, say public health experts.
Social distancing is a way of “limiting those venues that can be accelerants for an outbreak … the same way you want to cut off oxygen from a fire,” said Jason Schwartz, an assistant professor in the Yale School of Public Health.
“Social distancing is an all-encompassing approach to disease control,” he said.
Karen Thomas, a certified etiquette educator in Torrington, said it shouldn’t be hard to let people know you don’t want to shake hands, hug or get together, since everyone is in the same situation and aware of the virus.
“Everyone is in the same boat, so you’re really not going to be offensive by saying to somebody, ‘I really don’t want to come over this weekend’ or ‘I don’t want to shake hands,’” she said.
“Do say why. Don’t act in horror,” she said. But she said small gatherings are probably OK “as long as you know your circle of people. … It’s a personal thing.”
Thomas said that, when going to a restaurant, “You’re entirely well within your rights to ask to be moved. But if it’s busy and they’re not able to accommodate your request, don’t get angry.”
Etiquette “has to do with … respect for self and others,” she said. And there may be a positive side to Covid-19.
“My hope is that it will bring a kinder, gentler society, because we’re all, again, in the same boat. Everyone is worried about this epidemic,” she said “If we all band together and remember our manners and are a bit kinder to each other, we’ll all be fine.”
Covid-19 is so new, and has spread with such speed, that measures to keep people safe one day are deemed inadequate the next.
James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, found that out when deciding how to safely produce “A Raisin in the Sun” in the 600-seat University Theatre on York Street. Opening night would have been Friday.
Ultimately, he found it couldn’t be done responsibly.
On Tuesday, Bundy sent ticket-holders an email stating that their tickets were void, but that free tickets would be available for the play, with a limited audience of 100. That way, he could follow Yale University’s guideline that people stay 6 feet apart.
“We are committed to sharing director Carl Cofield’s magnificent production with as many people as possible. Because most performances already far exceed the new 100-person maximum capacity, we have determined that the most equitable solution is to cancel and refund all existing orders and start fresh,” Bundy wrote.
Tickets were made available at 2 p.m. Wednesday, first come, first served. “We didn’t want to show favoritism” among season ticket-holders, guests, donors and single-show attendees, Bundy said.
On Wednesday, however, Yale tightened its guidelines. Students already had been told not to return to campus after spring break; classes would be held online. Employees were asked to work at home if possible and, if not, to stay 6 feet apart.
“The university essentially mandated social distancing for everybody, not just as a recommended practice for an audience with … 100 people in it,” Bundy said.
He realized that the cast and crew couldn’t work “while maintaining the 6-foot distance.” Also, “we couldn’t expect students to stay home and take their classes online and then come in and work on a production in the afternoon.”
So, on Wednesday, “Raisin” and the final show of the season, “Testmatch,” were canceled. The School of Music also canceled performances of its instrumental and choral groups.
“Everybody’s really sad about it, but if you look around the nation it is a judgment that’s being made in every forward-thinking part of the country,” Bundy said. “If giving up three weeks of performances means lives will be saved, it is absolutely worth it.”
Social distancing does have its down side, as fewer people decide to patronize restaurants, bars and other businesses that have remained open. On Friday, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker ordered all restaurants, theaters, bars and other establishments with occupancy of more than 16 people to cut the number of people allowed by half.
Nino Ribeiro, owner of Basta Trattoria on Chapel Street, said it is not difficult to keep diners apart, given the lower number of customers. “We’re just sitting people separate,” he said. “We don’t use the tables next to each other because there aren’t that many reservations anyway.”
He said he wants to stay open and is offering his entire menu to go. “We don’t want to close,” he said. “We have our staff, we have our overhead. Especially a small place like us, we have only 35 seats.”
He said staff is making sure to keep everything as clean as possible, wiping down the restrooms, door handles and other areas people touch frequently.
On Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order prohibiting gatherings of 250 or more people. But that won’t ensure that someone who is infected won’t pass on the coronavirus to others, even in a small group.
That’s why some argue we should go out in public as little as possible.
Archbishop Leonard Blair has dispensed the obligation of attending Sunday Mass through March 29 for every Catholic in the Archdiocese of Hartford due to coronavirus concerns. “All the precautions of hygiene and social distancing should be followed, and that if someone is ill or having symptoms, out of charity they should not go to church,” Blair said in his message.
An anonymous doctor in Western Europe, where she said “we are drowning” in Covid-19 cases, wrote in Newsweek, “we all have a duty to stay put.”
“Now, odds are, you might catch coronavirus and might not even get symptoms,” she wrote. “Great. Good for you. Very bad for everyone else, from your own grandparents to the random older person who got on the subway train a stop or two after you got off. You're fine, you're barely even sneezing or coughing, but you're walking around and you kill a couple of old ladies without even knowing it. Is that fair? You tell me.”
Schwartz at the Yale School of Public Health won’t give that type of advice. His expertise is in policy.
He said, “Social distancing is a tried and true tool that public health officials have used for centuries” and is most often used “in the absence of medical intervention,” such as a vaccine or medication to treat the disease.
By staying a safe distance from each other, “our system will not be so strained, and our facilities will not be overwhelmed.” This is especially important during flu season, when hospitals are close to capacity.
“It’s the principle of flattening the curve, stretching out the duration of how this spreads,” Schwartz said. The practice both reduces the number of people who will get sick and “flattens” the steep increase in cases so they are more spread out over time.
“Frankly, it’s the only tool we’ve got to slow what’s really a very frightening spread of the virus in our communities,” he said.