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Does social distancing work indoors? A new study reveals possible problem

A new study from MIT found that staying 6 feet apart inside doesn’t really stop COVID-19 from spreading

In this Jan. 27, 2021 file photo, patrons enjoy lunch indoors at Gibsons Italia restaurant in Chicago. A recent spike in coronavirus cases in some states has led one of the nation’s top health experts to suggest that governors could “close things down” like they did during previous surges. But that doesn’t appear likely to happen — not even in states led by Democratic governors who favored greater restrictions in the past.
In this Jan. 27, 2021, file photo, patrons enjoy lunch indoors at Gibsons Italia restaurant in Chicago.
Associated Press

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that social distancing inside doesn’t really stop the coronavirus from spreading, according to Business Insider.

The study said the 6-foot rule doesn’t stop COVID-19 from spreading indoors, and that the risk of exposure is the same for someone 6 feet away and 60 feet away from each other, Business Insider reported.

  • “But while such distancing rules are easy to remember, and purport to suit any situation, the new study says they may not be that useful,” according to Business Insider. “It says a better way of controlling indoor exposure is to do individual calculations based on variables for that space.”

In fact, the research found that masks, ventilation and the use of space were bigger variables for stopping coronavirus compared to indoor social distancing.

  • Other major factors that could affect transmission included “amount of time spent inside, air filtration and circulation, immunization, variant strains, mask use, and even respiratory activity such as breathing, eating, speaking or singing,” per CNBC.

Martin Z. Bazant, an MIT professor of chemical engineering and applied mathematics, said that the 6-foot rule isn’t too helpful overall, according to CNBC.

  • “We argue there really isn’t much of a benefit to the 6-foot rule, especially when people are wearing masks,” Bazant told CNBC. “It really has no physical basis because the air a person is breathing while wearing a mask tends to rise and comes down elsewhere in the room so you’re more exposed to the average background than you are to a person at a distance.”

But, according to Forbes, the study didn’t look at all methods of transmission. It focused on small respiratory droplets and not larger ones. And the study didn’t take physical contact into account.

According to Forbes, the researchers essentially said, “the small droplets wouldn’t just stay more concentrated near the source but instead quickly fan out so that they are equally distributed throughout the airspace of the room.”

That said, the virus can still spread when you’re directly talking to someone, who would likely be within 6 feet of you and not 60 feet away from you, according to Forbes.

“It’s time to stop comparing different precautions against the COVID-19 coronavirus such as social distancing, limiting occupancy in rooms, face mask use, hand-washing, and air ventilation and filtration and trying to choose the single best one for all occasions. Each different COVID-19 coronavirus precaution isn’t like avocado toast,” according to Forbes. “One isn’t perfect for all occasions. Instead, think of each interventions like you would a slice of Swiss cheese. This doesn’t mean that they belong on a ham sandwich or all over your body. Rather, none of these interventions are perfect by themselves. They each have their holes, and transmission can occur in different ways. Therefore, the key is to layer on different interventions so that the layers can cover each others’ holes.”