Social distancing means standing 6 feet apart. Here's what that actually looks like

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We've been advised to stand 6 feet apart from others to lower our risk of getting infected with the coronavirus. But how can we tell whether we're standing just far away enough from people, or if we need to tell them to back up a little bit more?

Posted: Mar 24, 2020 6:23 PM
Updated: Mar 24, 2020 6:50 PM

We've been advised to stand 6 feet apart from others to lower our risk of getting infected with the coronavirus.

But how can we tell whether we're standing just far away enough from people, or if we need to tell them to back up a little bit more?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes social distancing as "remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible."

Why? When someone coughs or sneezes, small drops of liquid spray from their nose or mouth. If you're standing too close, you can breathe in the droplets, which may contain the coronavirus if the person coughing is infected, according to the World Health Organization.

The "6 feet of distance" rule comes from studies of respiratory physiology, said Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

"Without a cough or a sneeze, if we exhale, the distance 3 to 6 feet from each other is called the breathing zone. And it's in that kind of volume of air that what I exhale begins to mix with the air that's already in the room," Schaffner said. "So if you're standing within 3 to 6 feet of me, you may well inhale some of what I exhale. And of course if I have the virus, what I'm exhaling microscopically contains the virus."

If you're finding it hard to estimate what exactly 6 feet looks like, we've got a list of animals, people and things you can keep in mind to help you judge the appropriate distance you should keep from other people.

Two Golden Retrievers standing nose to tail

The average Golden Retriever has a body length of 37 to 42 inches. Two of these dogs should amount to just over 72 inches, or 6 feet.

A man wearing a top hat

A man of average height stands at 5 feet 9 inches tall -- if that man wears a President Abraham Lincoln-esque top hat, he'd be just over the distance we're advised to keep from others.

An average sedan

Think of the width of your car when trying to gauge an appropriate distance -- an average large sedan is a little more than 6 feet wide.

A sofa

A standard three-seat sofa can be up to 6 feet long -- which means that you and the person sitting on the other end of it probably aren't far away enough from each other.

A dining room table

Try imagining you and your friend sitting across from each other at a long, fancy dining table -- some of them stretch 6 feet across.

The length of a mattress

The lengths of full- and twin-size beds are about 6.2 feet from top to bottom.

A moose's antlers

A moose grows to be between 5 and 6.5 feet tall on average. That height doesn't include its antlers, which can measure 6 feet across, according to National Geographic.

Two adult cats

Cat lovers may find it easy to commit this comparison to memory: Two male adult cats, at 35 inches each from their heads to the tips of their tails, can amount to nearly 72 inches.

A door

A door should be relatively easy to find when questioning whether you and your friend should move farther apart. Six feet is a little shorter than the average modern door, which runs from 78 to 80 inches.

A 6-foot long bathtub

A more relaxing comparison: Some bathtubs are 72 inches long.

It's not just about distance

Though it's important to distance ourselves from others right now, you can relax a little in your own home.

"I think within our own households we have to essentially do the best that we can," said Allison Chamberlain, a research assistant epidemiology professor in epidemiology at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health. "Obviously everyone is in a different living scenario and has a different amount of space that they can distance themselves from people living within their own homes."

We should still, however, be aware of our habits regarding sneezing and coughing no matter who we're around, Chamberlain said.

You should make sure that you, and the people around you, follow what the WHO calls "good respiratory hygiene." This means you should cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or the crook of your arm when you cough or sneeze, then throw away the tissue immediately.

"What we're doing is trying to enforce the 6-feet-plus rule, if you will, by asking everybody to stay home who can stay home," Schaffner said. "On occasion, when people cough or sneeze, they give their exhalation -- and sometimes that can travel more than 6 feet. But just to be practical, that's what the rule has become.

"That's what people can get in their minds and work on knowing that we don't live in a perfect universe and we're not going to wrap ourselves in plastic," Schaffner continued.

By heeding these precautionary measures, you have a greater chance of protecting yourself and others not only from the coronavirus, but from cold and flu, too.

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