Social Distancing and Travel During Coronavirus: What You Need to Know

What it might mean for you, and how you’ll know if it’s time to start

Sukhneet Dhillon, age 11, and family wear masks as they arrive from a flight from India, through Tokyo, to Sea-Tac airport.
Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

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DDuring the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, many U.S. cities implemented what’s called social distancing to stop the spread of the deadly virus. This mostly involved closing schools and banning public gatherings for weeks or even months at a time. While it sounds a little extreme, it worked: The cities that enforced restrictions earlier and for longer had lower mortality rates than cities that waited or started and stopped the measures.

Health professionals are now looking to the 1918–1919 flu for guidance on how to handle the growing global Covid-19 outbreak, and social distancing recommendations are starting to look more and more likely. Read on to find out what it might mean for you, and how you’ll know when it’s time to start.

Should I stop going out in public if I’m healthy but the virus has been detected in my region? Is it time to start avoiding crowds, work, the gym?

The CDC has now advised people who are elderly or have an underlying health condition or weakened immune system to stock up on supplies, avoid crowds as much as possible, and distance themselves from people in public, especially anyone who appears to be sick.

Everyone else should be in a phase of personal vigilance (wash your hands, maybe don’t shake other people’s hands, don’t touch your face), but you don’t need to change your daily routine unless you want to. In general, you should always do your best to avoid people who are sick, especially if they’re coughing, and certainly don’t go out in public if you yourself are ill.

If there is a Covid-19 outbreak in your community, check your local health department’s website for additional recommendations. In King County, Washington, one of the areas hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, the public health department is recommending, but not requiring, that people — especially those at higher risk of illness — avoid or postpone large events and gatherings, that workplaces allow people to work from home when possible, and that people avoid hospitals, care facilities, and nursing homes if they can. Public schools and the University of Washington are temporarily closed due to the virus.

“The CDC has said that there may come a time where they start to recommend what’s called non-pharmaceutical intervention to stop the spread of disease.”

In the Bay Area, some schools have been closed as a precaution, and several of the major tech companies have urged their employees to work from home. Stanford University and UC Berkeley have suspended classes for the time being. Similarly, schools and synagogues have closed in Westchester County, New York, after numerous cases have emerged there. If you’re concerned about your own city, check the local public health website.

“I would pay very close attention to what the department of health is saying,” says Catharine Paules, an infectious disease specialist at Penn State Health. “The CDC has said that there may come a time where they start to recommend what’s called non-pharmaceutical intervention to stop the spread of disease.”

Until this type of recommendation is made in your region, it’s up to people’s discretion and personal tolerance for risk as to whether they want to continue going out as normal. However, those who are at greater risk for a severe infection should be more conservative.

What about travel, especially international?

There are currently travel bans for China and Iran because of COVID-19, and people are urged to reconsider their travel to South Korea, Italy, and Japan. The U.S. State Department has also cautioned people against traveling by cruise ship after several severe outbreaks on Princess cruise lines. Similar to social distancing recommendations, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions are encouraged to be more cautious and reconsider air travel at this time.

As of publishing, the virus has been identified in 86 countries, and there’s no telling where else it will emerge or how severe an outbreak will be. And it’s not just the risk of contracting the virus — you never know if, when, and where travel restrictions will emerge that could make it difficult for you to get home once you’re out of the country.

“People have different levels of risk tolerance in a situation like this,” says William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Short answer is it’s important to pay attention to CDC website travel alerts.”

Concerns about large gatherings are also keeping people home. Several conferences scheduled for March, including South by Southwest in Austin, have been canceled because of the virus, and many companies are imposing bans on nonessential travel.

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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