Opinion | Healthcare

What happened to social distancing in America?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The U.S. is well into its third wave of COVID-19, with around 60,000 new cases reported on average each day, and an increase of 34 percent compared to two weeks earlier. America has now had eight million known cases of infection. 

Somehow, the U.S. does not seem to get this virus under control. Much attention has gone out to failures in testing, and also to people's resistance to facemasks. But somehow, since the summer, very few people still talk about social distancing. 

Remember last spring, when we were fighting to flatten the curve; when there were still stay-at-home orders? Most states then imposed social distancing mandates, requiring people to keep a safe 6 feet distance from one another. To get people to keep a distance, authorities used moral appeals, enforcement and practical interventions, like taking away the basketball hoops in Central Park. There was a clear logic behind such measures: if people keep apart, there is a much lower chance that the virus can spread from one person to another. The science is very clear here: Social distancing provides a vital layer of protection.

So what has happened to social distancing in America? 

We have been tracking American social distancing practices since April. Our research, using survey data from a representative American population conducted each month, shows a clear decline since May: by July, only one in four Americans say that they always keep a safe distance from non-household members. Clearly, Americans no longer practice social distancing.

We also assessed what does make Americans still practice social distancing. Four things were key: fear of the disease, support for the policies, being able to keep a safe distance and seeing others do so. So, we know quite well what is needed to keep Americans safely apart. Unfortunately, however, since spring the forces that drive social distancing have eroded quickly. 

In the late spring, many states started to lift the social distancing mandates, while introducing face mask decrees. Authorities in many localities also stopped trying to motivate people to keep a safe distance, and obviously, enforcement stopped when the mandates were lifted. By now, the safe distance rule is mostly an advisory norm. And thus, by downgrading distancing from mandate to advisory, authorities have sent a clear signal to American citizens: staying safe is less about steering clear of others. 

Mass rallies - first against the coronavirus measures, then against police violence, and later for Trump's reelection campaign - did not help either. Seeing masses of people in close proximity sends a clear signal that distancing is no longer needed and that it is no longer normal to do so; and President Trump personally hasn't helped either. 

For months we have seen him in close human contact. Since his recovery after catching the virus, he has been boasting that COVID-19 is nothing to fear. And now he even intends to organize yet another mass campaign rally in Florida. 

America has forgotten about social distancing. And this is highly worrying. Americans need all the protection they can get against this deadly virus. If one stays far away from anyone who may be infected, the chances of getting the disease (or a serious form of it) are far lower.

So, states should bring back distancing mandates. Media and health officials should reemphasize the importance of staying apart. And our leaders should set the right example, and stop hugging and kissing. Yes, distancing is much harder than mask-wearing. It is socially awkward, to say the least, and may come with severe economic repercussions.  But weighed against the devastation of the virus and the massive costs of another lockdown, keeping six feet apart is a small sacrifice. 

Benjamin van Rooij is a global professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the forthcoming "The Behavioral Code: How law makes us better...or worse."

Chris Reinders Folmer is an assistant professor of Law and Human Behavior at the University of Amsterdam and researches behavioral responses to coronavirus measures.  

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