Coronavirus: How to practise social distancing while queueing and walking

Should you climb into ditches to avoid people, or hide from friends in the supermarket?

The Department of Social Protection is struggling to maintain social distancing with the surge in emergency unemployment claims from people signing on due to the coronavirus outbreak. Video: Enda O'Dowd


The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) warned this week that people are not following social distancing guidelines while out in public parks.

It begs the question: how do social distancing guidelines apply to public parks? Do you have to climb into ditches to avoid other people? If you’re in the supermarket, should you hide in the freezer aisle if you see someone you know? Or is it still okay to stop and have a chat?

For a start, the phrase “social distancing” is probably contributing to the confusion. Some people have suggested “spatial distancing” is a better way of visualising what’s been asked of us all.

The goal is to reduce interactions and limit the chance of transmission – not to live like a hermit. You can still interact with other humans, just not with the same casual, back-slapping, air-kissing proximity you might usually employ.

We’ve waded through all the advice out there on social distancing to try and figure out how to stay safe outside. Note that these guidelines apply to those who are well and not in a high-risk group. When, at a later date, we move into the phase the Taoiseach has described as “cocooning”, older people and those with underlying health conditions will have to take a more conservative position.

But for now, the following advice should help you to practice social distancing while outside:

Keep a distance of two metres (or 6.5 feet) between yourself and other people. How do you visualise two metres, without tying yourself up in a Junior Cert maths problem every time you have a social encounter? I measured it in my kitchen: it’s about three arm-lengths for this average sized adult. Not quite shouting distance, but definitely too great a distance for a discreet gossip. So keep that for WhatsApp.

You don’t need to hide if you see someone you know barrelling towards you on a forest path. According to the HSE, you need to be within two metres of each other for around 15 minutes to risk transmission. So please don’t put yourself at risk of a different type of incident altogether by hopping into a ditch or climbing a tree to avoid Tony from across the road. Say a polite hello to Tony and carry on your way.

Can you meet up with a friend to go for a walk? This is a tricky one. Ideally, we should all be walking alone or only with those we already live with. But as we’re all social creatures, facing into long months of social isolation, we might find ourselves in need of a sympathetic ear other than the one with live with.

“Walking outside with a friend, while keeping a distance, is likely to be a relatively low-risk activity,” Carolyn Cannuscio, the director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania told The Atlantic. She sensibly adds that you probably shouldn’t meet a new friend every day, if you want to really minimise the risk.

The NPWS encourages “small walking groups – with a distance of approximately two metres between”. So if you do plan to walk with a friend, try to walk somewhere that allows you to keep two metres – a good three arm lengths – between you. If you really want to offload at high volume, we’d suggest somewhere remote.

Can you meet up with a large group of friends to go for a walk? In short: no. The NPWS urges people to “avoid congregating closely in large groups, even in these outdoor areas.” Getting a gang together defeats the purpose of social isolation. So save the group hangouts for Google Hangouts – or Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp.

When you’re out and about, it’s obviously a good idea to keep a wide berth of those who are coughing and spluttering. But remember that even people with mild symptoms — and those with none at all, who don’t know they’re infected — are keeping the chain of infection going.

Make sure you don’t become part of that chain. The advice shared by infectious diseases expert, Dr Graham Medley on Newsnight, which went viral on social media in recent days, is to act as though you’re contagious. “Imagine that you do have the virus, and change your behaviour so that you’re not transmitting it.”

Coronavirus may not have hit your community yet, but act like it has. Avoid high-traffic places for your walk, like playgrounds or more crowded city parks. The virus can survive on plastic and metal for two to three days, so playgrounds are risky. Bring a bike or a scooter for your kids instead.

It’s not easy to avoid shopping trips altogether, but you can make them safer, and you don’t need a hazmat suit and gas mask to do it. Remember that every surface is a possible source of contamination. Bring your own disinfectant wipes, and give the handle of the shopping trolley a thorough wipe.

The HSE advises not using gloves instead of washing your hands, because the virus gets on them in the same way it gets on your hands, and the only way to get them off is, well, with your hands. Don’t touch your face during of afterwards, and wash your hands with soap and water at the first opportunity.

Some shops that aren’t online are offering phone-in orders for people who want to avoid coming inside. A few even have a full no-contact service: you can phone in your order, ring when you’re outside, and they’ll come out and put it in the boot of the car for you.

A good tip from epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, Dr Caitlin Rivers, is to leave your mobile somewhere inaccessible – such as the glove compartment – when you’re shopping, so that you don’t absent-mindedly reach for it.

If you do find yourself having to queue, pretend you’re at Electric Picnic and next in the queue for the Portaloo. You’ll stay two metres back without even having to think about it.

And when you get home after being outside, wash your hands again with hot water and soap, for at least 20 seconds, or long enough for three verses of Baby Shark.

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