Yes, Social Distancing Does Lower Your Chance of Contracting COVID-19

Conceptual image of social distancing.

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Key Takeaways

  • Scientists at The Ohio State University recently confirmed the protection social distancing offers against COVID-19.
  • They discovered that participants who had adopted social distancing strategies in real life and in the simulation were less likely to have contracted COVID-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic, as scientists learned more about COVID-19, safety measures and guidelines were constantly changing. Quickly, however, experts discovered that a few public health protocols offer the most protection against the virus: washing your hands, wearing a mask, and social distancing.

Social distancing has been cited by health officials as one of the most effective tools for curbing the spread of COVID-19. In a new study, scientists at The Ohio State University confirmed that social distancing protects against COVID-19.

Researchers had more than 2,000 participants practice social distancing in simulated conditions and surveyed them about their own social distancing practices in real life. They discovered that participants who had adopted social distancing strategies in real life and in the simulation were less likely to have contracted COVID-19.

The study is part of a larger initiative that aims to discover who is (or is not) "complying with the social distancing directive," senior study author Russell Fazio, PhD, a psychology professor at The Ohio State University, tells Verywell.

“We recognized from the outset [of the pandemic] that people’s reports of their social distancing behaviors may be open to bias,” Fazio says. “For that reason, we developed the virtual measure of social distancing, which relied on individuals’ 'in-the-moment' responses to graphical depictions of concrete real-world situations.”

Fazio says the study intended to "validate the virtual measure of social distancing behavior as a predictor of the likelihood of contracting COVID-19." The study was published February 4 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What This Means For You

Social distancing significantly helps reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19. While we wait for vaccines to continue to roll out across the country, you should keep practicing COVID-19 safety measures like washing your hands, wearing a mask, and distancing from others.

Researchers Monitored Real-Time Reactions to Crowds

In the spring of 2020, Fazio’s team developed virtual simulations of multiple public locations: a grocery store, a packed beach, a crosswalk. They then invited research subjects to place themselves or imaginary people according to their individual social distancing preferences.

Fazio’s team informed respondents the scenes would be used to determine how individuals react in common daily settings, and how this attitude may have shifted in light of the pandemic.

Scientists then asked participants to imagine social settings and indicate how they would navigate within them. Interviewees had to decide what route to take on a sidewalk, park trail, or within a library in the company of others, as well as which seat they would choose in a coffee shop.

The researchers also asked how much social distancing participants practiced in real life. Those participating also disclosed pre-existing health conditions and if they had jobs that required them to leave their homes.

Four months later, researchers asked the respondents if they had tested positive for COVID-19, or otherwise believed they had gotten sick with the illness. Statistics showed that the more social distancing a person exhibited in the scenarios, the less likely they were to get sick with COVID-19. And those who practiced more social distancing in their own lives reported contracting the virus less.

Social Distancing Works

The results of The Ohio State University study support already existing evidence that social distancing works.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that limiting close face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing, as the CDC defines it, involves staying at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) away from others who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces.

A September 2020 study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that partaking in activities that do not allow for social distancing, like using public transportation, visiting a place of worship, or traveling outside the home is associated with a much higher chance for testing positive for COVID-19. The same study found those who practiced strict social distancing had a significantly lower probability of contracting the virus.

“I’m excited about the very clear evidence that social distancing reduces a given individual’s personal likelihood of contracting the virus,” Fazio says. “Social distancing benefits not only the community, in terms of reducing transmission rates, but also the individual personally, in terms of reducing the odds of contracting COVID-19.”

As most people in the U.S. wait their turn to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, social distancing remains an important way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Other studies encourage individuals to consider airflow, exposure time, occupancy, and types of activities, in addition to social distancing when deciding to engage in activities near others.

“It’s my hope that the findings offer yet another argument as to why people should be engaging in social distancing behavior,” Fazio says. “They benefit personally, as well as helping the community as a whole.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fazio RH, Ruisch BC, Moore CA, Granados Samayoa JA, Boggs ST, Ladanyi JT. Social distancing decreases an individual’s likelihood of contracting COVID-19Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2021;118(8):e2023131118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2023131118

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social Distancing.

  3. Clipman S, Wesolowski A, Gibson D et al. Rapid real-time tracking of nonpharmaceutical interventions and their association with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) positivity: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic pulse studyClin Infect Dis. 2020. doi:10.1093/cid/ciaa1313

  4. 3. Jones N, Qureshi Z, Temple R, Larwood J, Greenhalgh T, Bourouiba L. Two metres or one: what is the evidence for physical distancing in covid-19?BMJ. 2020:m3223. doi:10.1136/bmj.m3223

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.