Socializing in a Pandemic

What are the hazards of socializing, and what can we do about them? The science behind the 6ft/2m rule.

How not to socialize. A re-opening sight in Missouri in late May. Credit: Lawler50, via Reuters.

Minimize touching people and commonly-used surfaces. No more crowding extra people into a booth, unless they are family already sharing viruses. (Try standing at tall round tables.) No more bowls of snacks, no more buffets. No more passing a plate around the group. Let one person be the server for each bottle or pitcher. Wrap a new napkin around a common bottle before pouring your own, then immediately discard it.

No more handshakes and hugs. Start practicing your respectful bows and verbal caresses.

Credit: CDC.gov

So, on top of all of those touch-related precautions for socializing, what modifications are needed for the airborne viral hazard?

Besides touch, the other major route for viruses to spread is via airborne droplets, carried ahead by the airstream generated by speech or sneeze. That is why we wear masks, to protect others from whatever viruses we have. (To protect oneself requires the high-end of hospital protective outfits. Or a spacesuit.) Just one tiny droplet can carry enough viruses to get an infection started.

Loud speech emits four times as many viruses as ordinary speech. And, like sneezes, a yell generates an airstream that can carry them across six rows of seats.

Yells at spectator sports can be deadly to others.

We need a new standard: Just clap hard.

Aerosol particles are much smaller than droplets and so they can stay suspended in the air rather than settling out to the floor or table surface. One must accumulate a number of virus particles to get an infection started, so prolonged meetings can become a hazard — as in the case where 87% of a choir was infected during a 2.5-hour practice session by just one singer who became sick the next day. And that choral group was already practicing social distancing.

Designing a party for pandemic times

We can be more specific than the six-foot rule when designing a party for pandemic times. This general rule applies to parties:

If you are going to meet for more than a few minutes, gather in the open air for better ventilation. Spread out. And don’t shout.

But outdoors will not be an option in many cases, so what will help indoors? Reduce the need to shout.

We were reminded of this by all of the Coronavirus cases among workers in meat-packing plants in the Midwest. It is such a noisy environment that workers must often shout to be heard.

But, pre-pandemic, I often had someone sitting next to me at a dining table who had to get close and shout at me because of all of the background noise from socializing at the other tables in the room. Once someone is asked to repeat what they said, they use a loud voice that adds to the problem at other tables. Soon the dining room noise equals the machinery noise in those deadly meat-packing plants. So, how do we reduce the noise level on social occasions such as drinks or dinner?

Avoid noisy restaurants and bars, especially the ones designed to be noisy. Carpets and booths serve as signs that quiet conversation is valued.

When renting space at a hotel for a reception, specify some tall sound barriers that people can circulate around. An excellent example comes from the poster sessions at science meetings. Any city with conventions has a rental supply of tall poster boards, usually full of holes from thumbtacks; restaurants can rent them to experiment with what layouts reduce noise enough. Cover with art posters. Space out some chest-high round tables in the aisles for setting down drinks while conversing.

Small receptions can use museums and galleries after-hours. As with libraries, there is an expectation that you will keep your voice down in those settings, which will help avoid the Cocktail Party Effect from escalating the noise level — and the pandemic case load.

Keep it quiet.

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Providing some background on what’s in the news these days.

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William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin

President, CO2Foundation.org. Professor emeritus, University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Author, many books on brains, human evolution, climate

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