The challenge of social distancing

On Tuesday, I tried to make it a point to stand at least three feet from the person in front of me at the Cambridge post office. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation on “social distancing,” or the space between you and another, is that you stay be about six feet apart.

While social distancing was relatively under control there, the same was not true outside Boston’s downtown Registry of Motor Vehicles office. NBC10Boston tweeted out a bird’s-eye view of the line, showing people far less than six feet apart, and in some cases only separated by inches.

The state had extended expiration dates for licenses, and suspended road tests, but some things, like getting a car registered and obtaining license plates, still require people to go in to one of eight registry locations that have reopened. Only 25 people are allowed inside at a time in compliance with Gov. Charlie Baker’s social distancing order.

“We will be limiting the number of people allowed inside Service Centers and once those limits are reached, customers will have to either leave and come back or wait outside until it is possible to let them in while still maintaining social distancing,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack in a statement to the Boston Herald.

Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were being doled out inside, but not to the people outside who waited to up to three hours. There was also no enforcement of social distancing outside, and people did not seem apt to initiate it themselves.

Some people don’t have a choice over breaking the six-foot guideline. Grocery store employees often stand less than two feet from customers when they’re checking them out. They usually don’t have gloves or masks available. Because coronavirus is airborne — spread through respiratory droplets on surfaces and in the air — this is cause for concern. Trader Joe’s workers are attempting to get hazard pay and extended sick time in the event that they get infected. It’s rare to see any enforcement of social distancing at check-out lines.

It’s easier to tell people to stay home, even to mandate it in most circumstances, as a way to impose isolation than to count on steadfast observance of the six-foot rule. The repercussions for not even trying can be overwhelming.

Business Insider writes that in countries like China and Italy, where people were not isolated early enough in the pandemic, “the number of infected people seemed to skyrocket overnight. The reason for this is the virus’s exponential growth trajectory.” Studies suggest that without measures to curtain its spread, on average, each person with the virus infects 2.5 other people — making coronavirus far more contagious than the seasonal flu.

With more than 8,700 known coronavirus cases in the US (researchers suggest that number is far higher) and more than 100 deaths, public health experts are urging isolation to “flatten the curve” of the outbreak. That means slowing the virus’s spread so that the country’s hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

The Washington Post has created simulations on what flattening the curve can do, showing how infection can spread without social distancing, and how it can be slowed with the right behavior changes.

Baker has recommended social distancing at every press conference, but much of this still remains at the discretion of individuals.

With restaurants only allowed to operate on a take-out basis and bars shuttered, a main concern now is how to get the people at grocery stores or who are outside properly distanced. Requiring grocery stores to limit how many people go inside at once while asking people in lines to remain far apart could be one of those solution.

A simple wet cough from the person a foot away from you can go a long way. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday found that the virus could be detected up to three hours later in the air, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

Continued public education about the imperative of social distancing seems crucial.

Back at the post office, the person behind me was standing less than a foot from me when I asked her politely to please back up a little — “social distancing is important,” I said. She rolled her eyes, smiled, and obliged.



Corrections Commissioner Carol Mici disavows a memo written by her top aide that placed a moratorium on disciplinary actions against correction officers and revoked any existing suspensions. Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins says the memo indicated the Department of Correction wanted to bulk up on “disgraced, previously disciplined & suspended guards.” (CommonWealth)

Virus notes: Gov. Charlie Baker orders a shutdown on Monday of all child care facilities — to be replaced by new daycare centers catering to emergency personnel….Pharma is moving fast on medicine and vaccines…House employee tests positive….Running the numbers. (CommonWealth)

The Legislature, with a lot on its plate, puts a lot of it on ice for now. (CommonWealth)

Baker signs a bill making it easier for individuals to file for unemployment benefits. (Eagle-Tribune)


President Trump signs a coronavirus emergency aid package. (NPR) Meanwhile, Mass housing advocates are praising the administration’s emergency housing policies.(WGBH)

A Globe editorial voices wariness of any huge bailout plan narrowly targeted to only select industries — and points out that all but one of the roughly 300 cruise ships that operate in the US are registered in Panama and other countries to avoid US taxes and labor laws and so suggests cruise companies look to those governments for help.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are ramping up calls for a national moratorium on evictions as the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis hits renters. (Boston Globe)

A transgender naval officer stationed in Massachusetts sues over the US military’s transgender ban. (AP)

US Rep. Richard Neal says stimulus checks from the federal government should go toward people earning $50,000 or less a year. (MassLive)

While Gov. Charlie Baker and his New York counterpart, Andrew Cuomo, have been modeling social distancing during press briefings, no such role modeling is taking place when President Trump and his team all huddle at close distance before the cameras. (Washington Post)


William Weld ends his longshot bid for the Republican nomination for president. (Politico)

The special election to fill Shaunna O’Connell’s state rep’s seat in the 3rd Bristol District is still on. (The Enterprise)


How does social distancing work? Read this story with various simulations to get an idea. (Washington Post) By the way, it’s one of the best read stories ever on the Washington Post site. (Poynter)

Getting coronavirus updates in Spanish is a mixed bag. (WGBH)

Liquor distilleries like Nashoba Valley Spirits are experimenting with making hand sanitizer instead of vodka. (Telegram & Gazette)

Homeless shelters are stretched to the limit trying to adhere to social distancing regulations. (MassLive) Meanwhile, 1 percenters are flocking to their island homes on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard to hunker down and minimize exposure to the virus — an influx not being welcomed by year-round residents of the islands. (Boston Globe)

Don’t try to redeem those empty bottles and cans. The Department of Environmental Protection and Attorney General Maura Healey suspended the bottle deposit law during the coronavirus crisis. (Standard Times)

A New Bedford psychiatrist gives recommendations for dealing with anxiety. (Standard-Times)


President Trump’s $1 trillion stimulus package represents a sea change for him and right-wing allies who rode the wave of conservative opposition to the 2008 bank bailouts and subsequent stimulus plans. (Washington Post)

Golf clubs wonder whether to stay open. (Telegram & Gazette) More grocery stores are offering senior-only shopping hours. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Hourly workers who lose jobs or hours are struggling to make ends meet. (The Salem News)

Unemployment claims spike in Massachusetts (Boston Business Journal)

Internet traffic is up nearly 70 percent, but experts say the technology we all now depend is mostly up to the task of handling the surge. (Boston Globe)

South Shore Plaza in Braintree is set to close Wednesday night and will not reopen until at least the end of the month, Simon Property Group, the largest owner of shopping malls in the nation, said today.  (Patriot Ledger)


Fall River Superintendent Matthew Malone confirmed to Herald News that construction of the $263 million new B.M.C. Durfee High School is “moving forward as planned.”


With a wait of up to a week for results of coronavirus tests, health care providers say they are potentially squandering scarce protective equipment in caring for patients who may not actually have the infection. (Boston Globe)

There’s light demand so far at UMass Memorial Medical Center’s drive-through coronavirus testing facility, and a Shrewsbury CVS is chosen as one site for a national pilot program of drive-through testing sites. (Telegram & Gazette)

Despite an overall testing shortage, the rich and famous seem to be cutting the line. (New York Times)

The coronavirus has ravaged a large New Jersey family, with seven members developing COVID-19 so far and three of them now dead, the family’s 73-year-old matriarch and two of her children, both of whom were in their 50s with no underlying serious medical conditions. (New York Times)

Dental hygienists say some dentists are continuing to perform elective procedures, putting them at risk of coronavirus. (Telegram & Gazette)


MBTA ridership continues to plummet — off 78 percent on the subways compared to a normal week. (CommonWealth)

Nantucket officials have asked the Steamship Authority, Hy-Line Cruises and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to limit passenger service to the island over concerns about spreading the new coronavirus in close quarters. (Cape Cod Times)

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ICE says it will delay arresting immigrants on immigration violations who do not pose a public safety risk. (MassLive)