A man wearing a facemask walks past a sign board displaying preventive meausres against the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, outside a mall in Islamabad on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP) — AFP or licensors

'Can I go to the park, can I eat out, can I meet my friends?': Social distancing explained

Everything you want to know about the precautionary step being promoted by WHO and leaders across the globe.
Published March 17, 2020

What is social distancing?

Social distancing is the term that “epidemiologists are using to refer to a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully stymie community transmission of the virus”.

In layman terms, it means to limit social contact — even if you feel a 100 per cent healthy — within communities to minimise the chances of the virus spreading.

With the rising number of coronavirus cases globally as well as within Pakistan, there is a growing concern about how to protect not only yourself from the virus but also contain its spread.

Enter social distancing — a precautionary step being promoted by everyone, from world leaders to the World Health Organisation.

A photo posted by Instagram (@instagram) on

The most important rule in social distancing, according to WHO, is to maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

It also includes — but is not limited to — avoiding large gatherings, and gatherings in smaller public spaces, such as cinemas, restaurants, theatres.

Read: The dos and don’ts of social distancingThe Atlantic

Here, we take a look at some of the most commonly asked questions regarding social distancing (keep checking back this space as we'll be adding more Q&As over time).

Should I be going into work?

Follow the plan shared by your manager/employer and if they haven't shared it yet, you can ask them to come up with one.

As of now, the government of Pakistan has not issued directions for offices to be closed and employees to work from home. The first such step was taken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the emergence of first 15 cases, where all government employees aged 50 and above were given a 15-day leave.

However, companies have enforced different sets of plans, some of which include working remotely. Others have shared guidelines on washing hands, installed hand sanitisers, barred entry of all non-employees, and implemented other measures.

The Centre for Disease Control in the United States and the Australian Government Department of Health have included the following steps in their guidelines for businesses and employers which pertain to employees' movement and in what situations employees should be staying home:

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home
  • Separate sick employees
  • Emphasise staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees
  • Ensure employees who become sick while travelling or on temporary assignment understand that they should notify their supervisor and should promptly call a healthcare provider for advice if needed
  • Stop handshaking as a greeting

Read: ‘If you can work from home, you should. Now.Washington Post

In the case that you are required to work from home, here are ways to do so effectively shared by BBC and if you are still going into work, here are some steps you can take to stay safe.

How should I inform my domestic staff?

If you employ domestic staff, it is important that you ensure they know about the pandemic, its spread and most importantly, the necessary precautions to take — for their health as well as yours.

JPMC Executive Director Dr Seemin Jamali talking to Dawn.com said that like everyone else, domestic staff are also fearful and should be informed about the necessary precautions to take.

She said the media is a vital tool in providing this information and even when an individual may not be able to read the text being shared, visual images leave a mark.

In instances where the staff is arriving using public transport, she said that washing hands after entering the house is key.

In what instance should domestic staff be asked to stay home instead of coming to work?

Jamali said that this should be implemented if a member of staff is sick — if they have the flu or any symptoms of the virus they should self-isolate.

Here's the bottom line: as employers, it is your obligation to make sure your workers understand why they need to wash their hands and to provide them soap and other hygienic products; explain to them patiently why touching one's face is a no-no; in as simple language as you can, break down what social distancing and self-isolation is; and very importantly, share information with them on where to go and how to get tested for free.

I use public transport/ride-hailing services; what should I do?

Till the time people are commuting, they will need to use a means of transport to do so — whether it be private or public transport, including ride-hailing services. Jamali's advice for domestic staff arriving via public transport applies here — wash your hands and focus on hygiene.

Here are some other steps you can take:

  • Use hand sanitisers, clean wipes and disinfectants between rides to make sure germs don't spread
  • Minimise contact — avoid physical contact with other people in the vehicle
  • In crowded vehicles, you may also wear a mask as to not make others uncomfortable if you cough or sneeze

Can I still go out and eat in restaurants?

There appears to be differing answers on whether going to public places like restaurants is a good idea — the short answer is you should exercise caution when/if you do.

Soon after, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had said that it was unacceptable that people in Karachi were still thronging restaurants, hotels and tea stalls and warned that people should practice self-isolation, the Sindh government announced the closure of all restaurants, malls and shopping centres in the province.

Additionally, Section 144 was imposed at the beach and parks.

Ahead of the provincial government's decision, various restaurants — including Pinch & Co, Garden Bistro, Okra's Test Kitchen and Thyme — in Karachi had decided to suspend dine-in services.

Thyme restaurant announces suspending dine-in services.
Thyme restaurant announces suspending dine-in services.

According to experts, whether or not you decide to go out to eat during the coronavirus pandemic, depends on various factors including:

  • The local context — Where you live and the spread of the virus in your location
  • Where you are going to eat — How many people will be there? How close will you be to all those people? How well ventilated is the space or how much people can move around?
  • Your own age, vulnerability etc to contracting the virus and being at-risk
  • How is the food being prepared and served?

Read: ‘You don’t have to avoid restaurants, but eating out isn’t risk-free during the coronavirus outbreak’Insider

“Your own vulnerabilities to the disease, where you live, and the restaurant you're considering going to itself all matter. Plus, your responsibilities to your community play a role in the answer, too.”

Speaking to various experts, The Atlantic provided a guide that is specifically aimed at those who are symptom-free and not part of an at-risk group here.

A senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security Crystal Watson said that it depends on the local context.

“If we’re in a situation where the disease has been shown to be spreading widely, I think people will start to want to stay home and not go out in crowded settings.”

Meanwhile, director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania said that people should avoid gathering in public places as the measures that worked to control transmission in certain countries like China and South Korea were “extreme measures to increase social distancing”.

Here's the main question: is it absolutely necessary for you to eat out at the moment? Or can you take your food to-go and leave a good tip for the people who are coming into work during this time?

What about ordering in?

Yes, you can order food but again, washing your hands after taking the container is a good idea.

A physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health said that as per health officials there is no indication that the coronavirus can be transmitted on food — it is a respiratory illness spread to droplets.

So what about delivering food instead of going out to eat? This does reduce the exposure but at the same time, the person bringing your food may transmit it to the packaging.

The Washington Post said that in their guidelines to high-risk individuals the CDC had suggested having food brought to their houses. At the same time, however, you need to consider the person handling the delivery.

In conclusion, The Washington Post said that when it comes to eating out or ordering in these days: “use common sense, be observant — and ask questions”.

Read the full article here.

To sum it up: Dispose of the container, transfer your food to a clean plate or bowl, use fresh utensils and wash your hands before you eat the food.

Can I still meet family and friends?

This depends on your health and whether you have symptoms of the virus — specifically when interacting with those at-risk. It also depends on the size of these gatherings.

According to Watson: “Small gatherings are probably okay as long as nobody has symptoms, respiratory symptoms. As soon as someone seems sick, you should probably not get together.”

The chair of the epidemiology department at the Yale School of Public Health Albert Ko said this is a “gray zone”. He said that good public health should be practised during get-togethers.

Read: The family lockdown guide: how to emotionally prepare for coronavirus quarantineThe Guardian

There is, however, more emphasis on how we interact with elderly individuals.

“If you’re healthy and have no symptoms, there shouldn’t be any reason not to visit family members. If you feel unwell, absolutely don’t go. It’s not a smart decision.”— Macleans

This is also be a good time to make use of technology — call a friend, WhatsApp them (but avoid sharing fake/unverified coronavirus news) and if you really want to see them, make a video call.

A good idea to avoid large-group brunches and dinners; spend some one-on-one time with your friend instead.

What about going to get groceries?

Sindh Information Minister Syed Nasir Hussain Shah has denied all rumours of a lockdown that have been circulating on social media. He said some "elements" on social media were asking people to gather rations which he said was "unnecessary".

Despite such clarifications, there is panic among the population, which means people are stocking up on supplies.

If you are going grocery shopping, here is what you can do:

  • Follow the same protocol as for other social interactions during this period of coronavirus
  • Keep the elderly and at-risk individuals in mind when doing so
  • When stocking up on supplies, think about others. It is good to be prepared but don't hoard goods that others also require

As mentioned earlier, WHO recommends maintaining at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

It would be wise to apply the same rational anytime you step out — whether it be for groceries, eating out or going to work.

There have been instances of reducing exposure particularly to those who are more vulnerable or high-risk. An Australian supermarket has launched an hour during which the store will exclusively be open to the elderly or those with a disability.

Additionally, when it comes to touching banknotes, The Guardian says according to the Bank of England currency carries no greater risk than touching any other common surfaces.

The report added that WHO has said news that cash was transmitting the virus was “misrepresented”.

“However, logic would suggest that most notes and coins will have previously been handled by large numbers of people (though ATMS quite often dispense notes that are either brand new or little used), so if you are worried, paying with a contactless card where possible is probably the way to go.”

We recommend that while grocery shopping keep in mind: your proximity to others around you, don’t hoard goods — think of others shopping, particularly those who may require essential supplies — and as with all other interactions, wash your hands and practice good hygiene.

Read: Can I shop for groceries safely during the coronavirus pandemic?The Hill

Can I still go to the mosque to pray?

In a decree, the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) has told people to follow the measures issued by the government in order to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. The decree further said that Urdu sermons during Friday congregations should be discontinued while Arabic sermons should be shortened.

A safe distance should be kept between the rows of worshippers, who should pray on the floor — which should be washed with soap and water — instead of prayer mats. It would be preferable, the fatwa said, to pray in an open space. Furthermore, the elderly and the sick have been advised to pray at home.

Earlier, President Dr Arif Alvi had also provided guidelines for instances in which prayers should be offered at home and asked citizens to follow government instructions on Friday prayers.

So when deciding whether to offer prayers at a mosque, follow the advice of the government, religious scholars and keep in mind your own health as well as the health of those around you.

Can I go to the gym?

Take care of your health but using a communal gym at the moment is a no. It is not possible to disinfect every machine and each equipment after every use.

If you don't want to miss out on your exercise, make some space in your house and opt for some YouTube workout tutorials.

In Sindh, swimming pools and gyms have also been closed for three weeks. Section 144 has been imposed in Punjab.

Read: What are the rules of social distancing?Vox

There are some centres which are offering small classes and personal training but make sure you question them about what steps they are taking in light of coronavirus.

What about going for a walk?

As with all public outings these days, the guidelines regarding what to do if you have symptoms should be followed.

The New York Times said exercise can be beneficial in fighting the effects of coronavirus. A patient who relies on going to the gym could “simply go for a walk”.

Read: If coronavirus scares you, read this to take control over your health anxietyThe Guardian

You can go for a walk in a park — unless it has been closed by the provincial or federal government as has been done in Punjab and Sindh — but exercise caution and make informed decisions about where you go.

Avoid crowded parks where you aren't able to maintain the suggested distance. Keep a sanitiser with you if you're touching a gate, a bench, etc.

If you have a garden or a rooftop, now would be a good time to make use of it.

Can I go to a beauty parlour?

While there is no right or wrong answer for this at the moment, here's what an expert said about making choices: “Can it be done at home? Can it be avoided? Is it a necessity?”

Associate chair and professor of health science at Ball State University Jagdish Khubchandani said that service industries such as salons are more likely to be affected by the virus due to the “personal contacts that occur in such places”.

Spas and salons are taking precautionary measures, but we would stress that you exercise caution and convey your concerns to those running the establishment. If their replies satisfy you, then you can go to a salon.

What if a family or friend is visiting from abroad and wants to meet?

Travel around the world has been severely impacted by the global spread of coronavirus. But what if you have a relative or friend who has recently arrived from abroad and wants to meet you? What should you do?

While there isn’t a clear guideline in place, we can base this on the steps being taken by other countries along with the general rules in place for interactions with others.

Various countries, including Canada, UAE, and Qatar, have asked that travellers coming from abroad stay home for two weeks after returning, during which they should monitor their health and practice social distancing.

This can also be applied in Pakistan; some people who recently travelled have already started to practice it, such as activist-lawyer Jibran Nasir who returned from the United States.

JPMC’s Jamali said that recent travellers should monitor themselves and stay at home. If they have symptoms, they should also isolate from family members. If the situation further deteriorates, they should report themselves to authorities immediately.

In times like these, don't be rude but you can be firm in saying "let's meet after two weeks".

Can I make travel plans for a month or two later?

Currently, scientists have not predicted when the coronavirus will be completely eradicated. However, since we can’t live in a state of uncertainty for an indefinite period, you may make plans for two to three months down the line, but remember to be flexible.

Here’s what you should keep in mind:

  • Be wise when choosing a destination i.e. do check to what extent it has been affected by the virus
  • You can book a ticket and hotel but make sure that they are offering a full refund in case you need to cancel or a travel ban is imposed
  • Keep a check on the travel advisories for the destination as well as the departure country
  • Most importantly, be mentally prepared for changes to your plans depending on the global situation

Read: Guide to summer travel: Where to go, what to do — and whether to book at allCNBC

Header photo: A man wearing a facemask walks past a sign board displaying preventive measures against the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, outside a mall in Islamabad on March 16. — AFP