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Physical Distancing and Stopping the Spread

To slow the spread of COVID-19 through U.S. communities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged Americans to practice "social distancing" measures. But what is social distancing, and how is it practiced? Download a Social Distancing flyer.

What is physical distancing?

Physical distancing is a public health practice that aims to prevent sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people in order to reduce opportunities for disease transmission. It can include large-scale measures like canceling group events or closing public spaces, as well as individual decisions such as avoiding crowds.

With COVID-19, the goal of physical distancing right now is to slow down the outbreak in order to reduce the chance of infection among high-risk populations and to reduce the burden on health care systems and workers. Experts describe this as "flattening the curve," which generally refers to the potential success of social distancing measures to prevent surges in illness that could overwhelm health care systems.

How do I practice physical or social distancing?

The CDC defines social distancing as it applies to COVID-19 as "remaining out of congregrate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible."

It's particularly important—and perhaps obvious—to maintain that same 6-foot distance from anyone who is demonstrating signs of illness, including coughing, sneezing, or fever.

Along with physical distance, proper hand-washing is important for protecting not only yourself but others around you—because the virus can be spread even without symptoms.

On the broader scale, a number of actions taken in recent days are designed to encourage physical distancing, including:

  • Schools, colleges, and universities suspending in-person classes and converting to remote online instruction
  • Cities canceling events, including sporting events, festivals, and parades
  • Workplaces encouraging or mandating flexible work options, including telecommuting
  • Organizations and businesses canceling large gatherings, including conferences
  • Houses of worship suspending services

Does physical distancing work?

Experts point to lessons from history that indicate these measures work, including those from the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. A 2007 PNAS study found that cities that deployed multiple interventions at an early phase of the pandemic—such as closing schools and banning public gatherings—had significantly lower death rates.

What are other ways to limit the spread of disease?

Other public health measures could include isolation and quarantine. According to the CDC's latest guidance:

  • Isolation refers to the separation of a person or people known or reasonably believed to be infected or contagious from those who are not infected in order to prevent spread of the disease. Isolation may be voluntary, or compelled by governmental or public health authorities.
  • Quarantine in general means the separation of a person or people reasonably believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease but not yet symptomatic from others who have not been so exposed in order to prevent the possible spread of the disease. With COVID-19, the CDC has recommended a 14-day period to monitor for symptoms.

The CDC offers more details on which populations face greater risks, and specific cautionary measures they should take.