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What are the rules of social distancing? We asked an expert.

To fight coronavirus, we need to change how we live.

The message from public health officials around the world has been unified and clear: To slow the spread of coronavirus, social distancing is among our best weapons.

The learning curve for how seriously we should be taking social distancing has been steep. Senators have still been using the gym. Spring breakers have still fled to beaches. People in Washington, DC, still flocked to witness the cherry blossoms bloom.

Social epidemiologist Carolyn Cannuscio says there is no happy medium when it comes to social distancing, if we’re doing it right. “I think it’s time for us to take very extreme measures in our personal lives. I think our lives should look radically different right now than they normally do.”

She says we can draw on two different sources of information that prove the efficacy of social distancing and outbreaks. School closures, if done early and long enough, have been effective in slowing the spread of pandemic flu.

The Chinese government’s recent response to the coronavirus is another good source. “The social distancing measures were imposed governmentally, and they were enforced through things like monitoring by drones, monitoring by apps, measures that probably would not be palatable to most Americans.” Cannuscio said.

“But what China managed to do in a densely populated area and Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, was to bend the curve and to really achieve this downturn in the case counts, so that the newly constructed hospitals, for example, are now largely empty. And they had to do that by restricting movement of the population and by emptying the schools.”

In short, Cannuscio recommends limiting our presence in public spaces to only the most necessary outings. Many of her words of caution — don’t go to the gym, concerts, movie theaters — are solved by government-mandated lockdowns of non-essential businesses. Many of us no longer have that option. But it could help us think twice about even small gatherings of friends, whether to succumb to the formalities of a hug or a handshake, or going out for walks or errands during high-traffic times.

“And when we’re under stress, many of us crave the contact and support of our loved ones and friends. So this will be a very hard time for many people,” Cannuscio says. “And I would say that the happy medium is to try to think creatively about ways to engage socially without physically being present, without that face-to-face contact.”

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