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.