SALT LAKE CITY — Just a couple of months ago, few people outside of science and emergency preparedness had ever used the term “social distancing.” But Americans were doing it already, in an incremental yet revolutionary change enabled by technology.

We distanced ourselves from other people when we checked ourselves in at an airport kiosk or checked ourselves out at the grocery store. We became a little more socially distant once we stopped pulling over and asking for directions because we had GPS in our cars. We began eating restaurant food without going to restaurants (thanks to DoorDash and Uber Eats), and we watch movies on big screens at home, instead of seeing them with our neighbors in crowded theaters.

In short, even before COVID-19, America had been preparing for coronavirus-driven social distancing for years.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously said that his company’s goal was to bring people closer together. British economist Frances Cairncross said technology promised “the death of distance.”

But the togetherness of technology, which allows an increasing number of Americans to work remotely as the new coronavirus spreads, is a different kind of togetherness than what families enjoy at the dinner table, or the banter shared at an office or coffee shop. It also comes at a cost.

As author John Horvat wrote, “Commerce is based on more than just transactions. It has always relied upon organic relationships.”

The pleasantries exchanged at the cash register do more than pass time, Horvat said. “These seemingly minor exchanges help knit communities together. They tend to produce what sociologists call social capital.”

As Americans retreat even further from each other out of fear of contracting COVID-19, we will likely experience more of the negative effects of the social distancing we’ve already been doing, including loneliness and depression, sociologists and other experts say.

But in this case, there could be a benefit once the pandemic has passed: This mandatory social distancing might be the catalyst that brings us closer together again.

‘Be St. Louis’

The rapid spread of the new coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, is enabled, in part, because of how long it takes for symptoms to occur (five days or longer) and because it can be transmitted from one person to another within a space of about six feet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While people are most contagious when they are sick, medical experts believe that transmission can also occur before symptoms emerge, which is why governments across the world were calling for social distancing measures weeks before the World Health Organization on March 11 declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic.

The term social distancing itself isn’t new.

A report prepared 10 years ago by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, in conjunction with the CDC, deemed social distancing an effective “nonpharmaceutical intervention” to combat pandemics and argued that the practice was effective during the flu pandemic of 1918-19.

Then, the social distancing ordered by the city of St. Louis, Missouri, stood in stark contrast to that of Philadelphia, which held a parade and became the U.S. city with the greatest number of deaths, 16,000 in six months.

More than a century later, Philadelphia is still being punished for this on Twitter, where people are writing “Don’t be Philadelphia; be St. Louis.”

Heather McCartin works from her home in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 13, 2020, amid growing fears over COVID-19. McCartin is a research assistant at the Utah Composites Lab at the University of Utah and is self-isolating as much as possible because she has cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease that makes her more vulnerable to the coronavirus. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

To be St. Louis nationwide, health officials are urging Americans to take a drastic and unsettling step: to stay home as much as possible. “Cancel everything. Now,” Yascha Mounk, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in The Atlantic.

For introverts, the overly stressed and people who are uncomfortable in crowds, remote work and widespread cancellations may sound like a vacation, government permission to do what they yearn to do anyway. “I’ve been ahead of the curve. I’ve been socially-distancing myself for the past 20 years,” Fox News personality and comedian Greg Gutfeld posted on Twitter. And National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, now living in Russia, posted on Wednesday, “Social distancing is underrated.”

The idea of social distancing can seem like an anomaly in an age of hyper-connectivity, said Dan Rothwell, professor emeritus of communication at Cabrillo University in Aptos, California.

But as Rothwell points out in his book “In Mixed Company: Communicating in Small Groups and Teams,” virtual connection has resulted in a society-wide erosion of civility.

Research has shown that virtual interaction is more likely to be negative and disapproving than when people communicate face to face, and social distance can promote misunderstandings, Rothwell said.

Moreover, the ease with which technology allows us to retreat, even from our own family members, is troubling, he added.

“My next-door neighbor is my daughter, her husband and our four grandkids. It’s wonderful, but I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve texted to see if they’re there, or picked up the phone to ask one of the grandkids to send some milk over to us, when what would have happened before is we would have had to wander over there and knock on the door.”

That has happened in offices, as well, as researchers have found that people who work near each other will text instead of getting up and walking over to another’s desk to ask a question. And one study has shown that nearly 7 in 10 millennials have been told via text or Facebook that a romantic relationship was over, Rothwell said.

That said, technology is also making social distancing and quarantine more bearable than it was in centuries past, when being banished from a community, as for leprosy, meant you might never see your family again.

“We can quarantine ourselves and still be connected. And that’s an interesting contradiction,” Rothwell said.

Alone in a crowd

Some people aren’t bothered by health officials’ recommendation that we keep close to our homes — like the person who responded to Snowden on Twitter, “It’s times like these I appreciate my social anxiety and hermit-like tendencies.”

Although social distancing may be easier for introverted people than extroverts, the response to COVID-19 will expose the myth that introverts don’t like being around people, said Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”

While introverted people are energized by quiet, they’re not antisocial. “They just want to interact quietly and with fewer people at a time,” Cain said.

”But at a time like this, anyone’s preferred way of being around people is going to be difficult right now.”

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And for both introverts and extroverts, too much solitude can morph into loneliness, which is increasing among all age groups in the U.S.

As Claire Pomeroy reported for Scientific American last year, nearly half of Americans say that they frequently feel alone and with no “meaningful connection” with other people. Loneliness itself has been described as an epidemic.

“Biologists have shown that feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones that in turn are associated with higher blood pressure, decreased resistance to infection and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer,” Pomeroy wrote, adding that there’s even some evidence that loneliness accelerates cognitive decline.

Although Cain thrives on quiet, she said she likes to write in a busy coffeeshop near her home in the Northeast. She didn’t go there on Wednesday, however, because of the coronavirus warnings, and she noticed on Tuesday that it was much less crowded than usual.

“I feel like we’re at a tipping point kind of moment,” she said. “It has been striking me how much it affects us all, even though it affects us in different ways.”

Signs of hope

Georganne Bender, a consultant and speaker with Kizer & Bender in St. Charles, Illinois, calls herself a “consumer anthropologist” because she researches consumer behavior “in their natural environment” — which she still considers to be brick-and-mortar stores. Even though online shopping and speedy delivery was keeping many people at home even before they were told to practice social distancing, she sees pockets of hope.

For example, she cited Wegmans, a chain of grocery stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, that offers cafes in some locations, as well as live music, and is creating a sense of community for people who might otherwise be lonely. “The first time I went was on a Friday night, and I saw a band playing and people dancing, I was blown away. I saw young couples there, and also men and women there with their elderly parents. When stores do things like that, it does bring people together, and they start making friendships,” she said.

Similarly, Matthew Stern reported for RetailWire that a Dutch chain, Jumbo Supermarkets, now has a “chatter checkout” line for people who want to talk, and a coffee area where lonely shoppers can socialize with volunteers.

Such measures could help combat the isolation of technology-driven societies, Bender said, as well as the negative side effects of social distance, both culturally and government-imposed.

“We are growing generations of people who don’t know how to communicate,” Bender said. “We’re losing a lot of camaraderie, and knowing your neighbors, how to talk to people, how to make eye contact.” But the yearning for interaction still exists even as we retreat into our homes, she said.

“You watch people at a conference or trade show, and the interaction is off the charts because we’re hungry for that,” she said.

“My hope is that when this is all over and we’re feeling safe again, we all start coming out of houses and going back to the malls and sporting events and concerts, and having friends over and interacting with each other again. I think we’re going to be starving for that. And hopefully, the coronavirus isolating us will be a catalyst for people getting back together.”