The Answer Column: Is A Hallway Soirée Okay?

The scene.

By Carol Tannenhauser

On Monday, we posted the story of three couples who met in their common hallway — six feet apart as verified by a tape measure — for a nightcap and much-needed conversation. Mike Balz, the man in the middle who sent us the photo, shared it in all innocence, an image of cooped-up neighbors looking to connect at a safe distance. (It did not initially trigger anxiety among West Side Rag editors, though maybe it should have.)

But then the comments started coming in. A few praised the group’s “creativity,” but most went more like this:

“To talk to friends in an apartment hallway is unbelievable in it’s ignorance and danger…Definitely not safe to be six feet apart in an enclosed space…Droplets can travel a lot further if you talk…This has to be one of the more selfish and rude things I have seen to date…There really needs to be one clear set of rules for EVERYONE because clearly some people never knew or they’re already choosing to forget WHY we’re staying inside.”

Mike was horrified. “We are being so careful and really thought that this was a safe way to have an outlet. If it’s not, we won’t do it again, of course! If it is, people need to realize that we are following guidelines, and if they want to follow stricter guidelines they set for themselves, they’re welcome to, but they don’t apply to everyone else in the world.”

Question: What are the guidelines regarding “social distancing” in a situation like this? Were the friends adhering to them or acting irresponsibly, being creative or endangering themselves and other people?

City guidelines don’t give much leeway, though they don’t go into every possible scenario. The NYC Department of Health says don’t gather in any shape or form, anywhere, unless it’s essential. “All non-essential gatherings of any size for any reason are banned,” according to their website.

Large communal gatherings are of course a big problem, either inside or out. Playdates and dinner parties are a no-no too. Suburbanites have been talking to each other from across their lawns or streets during the pandemic. Hallway drinking is different, because it’s inside. But perhaps it’s what another Rag commenter called “a sustainable option.”

“We are 6-7 weeks into this with many weeks ahead of us,” he wrote. “We need to find ways to be creative and make social distancing sustainable.”

We asked Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Center for Disaster Preparedness and professor of public health at Columbia University (and an Upper West Sider.) He explained the “six-foot rule” and how it has evolved since the crisis began.

“The six-foot number is an average, a minimum, relatively safe, but not perfect,” Dr. Redlener said. “A recent study at Temple University showed that the droplets can travel eight or ten feet or more, depending on conditions, such as  wind. People sneeze differently. Some people sneeze delicately and some people sneeze aggressively. There are very flagrant sneezers. Their droplets are going to travel farther.”

What about the fact that the friends are indoors?

“They’re indoors, but in a hallway, as opposed to a more enclosed space, like someone’s dining room in an apartment,” he answered. “This is, of course, assuming everyone is asymptomatic. If someone’s coughing and sneezing, they shouldn’t be in a hallway at all. It’s so hard to know, this is all new territory for everyone, and some people’s tolerance for literally isolating themselves is larger than others.”

Ultimately, this can be considered an ethical issue. Jonathan Kimmelman, director of the Biomedical Ethics Unit at McGill University, raised the idea of “social solidarity,” saying “we have an ethical obligation to curtail activities, practice social distancing, and substitute activities with safer alternatives,” in an article in Vox.

These decisions aren’t easy, but here’s our sense after checking with the experts: Hallway gatherings at six feet apart are near the line of acceptability, but still too far over it for now. At the very least, masks are necessary. Better yet: Wave at each other from the doorway and then connect at home on Facetime or Zoom.

COLUMNS | 20 comments | permalink
    1. Chris says:

      I am glad to see the follow up. This activity would be against my buildings rules at this time and before the virus. NYC fire code states that nothing can be placed in a common hallway including floor mats and shoes so sitting in chairs in the hall is against the law to say the least. Also it is kinda nice to think about others not just yourself.

    2. TJ says:

      It’s a shame such an innocent post prompted such a reaction.

      • Big Earl says:

        Exactly! Go to a supermarket and see how that craziness plays out and compare it to these people being safe in small numbers. Keep on keeping on!

        • Sarah says:

          As a general rule, it really is best to adhere to the guidelines as strictly as you can. But this crisis has definitely turned up people who are working off their anxiety by getting insane about other people’s minor deviations, when in fact we are all unable to do more than minimize risk to begin with. It would’ve been better if they’d had masks on–really you should have them on whenever you leave your apartment, period. But some people here really overreacted.

      • TheTruth says:

        Bunch of lames…are you really surprised?

    3. Guidelines? says:

      On another topic related to these new times. CDC is saying that pets should also socially distance from other pets and people not in their own households.

      Why then am I seeing dog-walkers out on CPW again with several dogs herded together? Isn’t this against guidelines? Plus the dogwalkers have to enter buildings and apartments to get the dogs.

      • NotImpressed says:

        Yeah, dogs are spreading this virus like wildfire.
        Serioulsy, get a grip.

        • Guidelines says:

          Talking about CDC guidelines.

        • Ethan says:

          CDC: “Treat pets as you would other human family members – do not let pets interact with people or animals outside the household. If a person inside the household becomes sick, isolate that person from everyone else, including pets.”

          The dogs herded together that we see in the parks clearly goes against the CDC guidelines, regardless of whether dogs are spreading the virus or now.

    4. Norma Kramer says:

      Maybe people could safely sit in their own apts. not too close to the doorway but with the door open. Would that be a safe way to connect ?

      • UpperBestSide says:

        This is exactly what we did last weekend with our neighbors. Each couple in their own foyer. Front doors propped open. A good 12′ apart from each other. It was very enjoyable.

    5. NY Native says:

      Sarah, thank you for putting that into words. I definitely adhere to the data-based guidelines that we’ve been given, and I wear a mask at all times outside my apartment. At the same time, the over-reactions to minor deviations are becoming a social problem all their own. I agree that they are anxiety-driven — with big doses of self-righteousness and general grumpiness mixed in.

    6. T says:

      Are you going to lock yourselves in forever? Are you all nuts. There is nothing wrong with a hallway gathering

      • Carnival Canticle says:

        Unless you happen to be a tenant in one of the other apartments on the floor (I see at least two more doors)who has the right to go to the elevator or trash compactor without walking through a cloud of the foursome’s aerosolized breath droplets. Those tenants also have the right not to annoyed by a bunch of chatter echoing through the hall. The quartet’s excuse that they are keeping their distance is a disingenuous excuse for their lack of consideration.

      • jhminnyc says:

        None of us knows the full parameters of this virus and how quickly it mutates. Why take risks for a fleeting get together now?

    7. JS says:

      I don’t think a common hallway is the right place for a gathering right now. It’s not fair to others who might be passing through . Why not meet in a park and stay 6ft. Apart and chat/socialize or go on zoom…..the new mode of communication. We should always think of other neighbors doing the same… would be too close for comfort.

    8. BJK says:

      Virus or not, it is rude to socialize in an apartment building hallway—the sounds echo and it creates noise for everyone else inside the nearby apartments. I always speak in hushed tones in the hallway and, aside from excited greetings of guests as they come out of the elevator and the occasional uncontrollable shouts from my neighbors’ kids, I expect others to do the same.

    9. Steve says:

      I would have gone with “Hey, Is a Hallway Soiree Okay?”

    10. nycityny says:

      I can’t understand why answers to these questions are not starting to be known. We have been locked down for around 7 weeks and yet new cases are still arising. If our leaders had instituted a good contact tracing program we would know how people who mostly stay home are getting sick. Or if they are at all.

      With all the data being released it would be nice to know how some of the over 1 million folks in this country contracted the virus – right now we have been told almost nothing in this regard.

      • JL says:

        Lack of WIDESPREAD testing. The “confirmed” cases are perhaps only 10% of the total infected numbers. Lack of ANY testing of people with the “regular flu” during the early weeks caused the delay in initial shutdown. The politicians not following the pandemic playbook resulted in 10s of thousands unnecessary fatalities and additional suffering and … whatever follows .

        The decision makers and leadership failed us in NYC.