What Is Social Distancing and Why Does It Matter?

Passengers wearing masks wait for a subway in Hong Kong in January. katherinekycheng/Shutterstock.com

With the coronavirus continuing to spread in the U.S., health experts say that everyone who isn't a frontline worker should stay at home and avoid crowds, especially those most at risk of getting sick. Older people and those with underlying health conditions are urged to keep space between themselves and other people, while avoiding big groups.

"It's commonsense stuff," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIH), said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "You don't want to go to a massive gathering, particularly if you're a vulnerable individual."

Viruses like the novel coronavirus — as well the common cold and the seasonal flu — are spread easily through close contact with other people. When people sneeze or cough, the virus can be transmitted through droplets in the air. It can also be shared on surfaces when someone who is sick coughs or sneezes into their hand then touches something like a door handle or elevator button. Someone else touches that surface then touches their own eyes, mouth or nose and the virus spreads.

Avoiding those scenarios is much easier when you're in contact with only the people who live in your home. And as other countries have proved, it works. That's why some form of social distancing may need to be in place into 2022, according to Harvard researchers writing in the journal Science.

Social distancing definition

Seattle-area school sign saying 'wash your hands'
Seattle-area schools closed in early March in response to the coronavirus infection. Karen Ducey/Getty Images

When a virus outbreak becomes severe, public health officials often will do more than make suggestions to keep people safe. They will take steps to limit the spread of the disease by keeping people from congregating in large groups. This is called social distancing.

One of the goals of social distancing is to keep people out of settings like schools, work and shopping centers, where they're together closely for an extended period of time. Another aim is to avoid mass gatherings like concerts, movies, religious services and sporting events. When you are out in public, the ideal distance is to keep between each other is about six feet apart, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Many local health officials have asked businesses to have employees work from home and pushed schools to close, allowing students to work online. They have canceled gatherings like parades and festivals and may even shut down mass transit, if needed.

Social distancing decisions are coordinated with cities, police departments, schools and state and federal agencies. The hope is that by limiting contact between people, the outbreak will slow down and the most vulnerable people in the community will be protected.

Taking steps like social distancing can make the difference in how quickly a virus spreads, as the graphic explains.

control measures and coronavirus and healthcare system
Control measures like social distancing will have an impact on how the health system is able to cope. Esther Kim and Carl T. Bergstrom [CC-BY-2.0]

Isolation vs. quarantine

An employee walks to her workplace in Piazza San Marco in Venice
An employee walks to her workplace in Piazza San Marco in Venice. Residents are under quarantine due to the coronavirus outbreak and are only allowed out for work or health reasons. Marco DiLauro/Getty Images

Social distancing is a set of measures used taken to keep an entire community safe, but sometimes individuals are asked to take additional steps to protect others from getting infected by isolation or quarantine, says the CDC.


Isolation is separating people who are known or believed to be infected with the virus. This lets them recover without spreading the virus to anyone else. People are usually isolated as long as the disease is contagious. While sick people are in isolation, health officials try to trace all the people they've been in contact with. That helps find the source of their disease and also uncovers who else should be in isolation or in quarantine.


Quarantine is limiting the movement of people or separating people who are believed to have been exposed to someone infected but who aren't yet sick. Quarantine lasts long enough to ensure that the exposed people aren't sick. In some cases, people are asked to self-quarantine at home if they had contact with a sick person. But governments can also order large groups of people to be quarantined — like an entire school student body or people on a cruise ship — if there's known exposure to someone with a virus.

How to avoid viruses

Shoppers stock up on supplies at a warehouse store in Texas.
Shoppers stock up on supplies at a warehouse store in Texas. Trong Nguyen/Shutterstock.com

No matter what rules have been imposed in your area, there are smart steps you can take to avoid viruses whether during cold and flu season or during the coronavirus outbreak. You may not necessary need to self-quarantine but you can prepare for the outbreak and limit your exposure to large groups of people.

  • Do your grocery shopping at off-peak hours and stock up for several weeks.
  • Work from home if you can.
  • Don't take mass transit. If you must, then commute outside rush hour.
  • Exercise outdoors instead of going to the gym.
  • Replace handshakes and hugs with waves or elbow bumps.