As part of the Covid-19 control measures, we’re being told to maintain a safe distance with other people we may encounter in public spaces. This varies from country to country. In Mauritius, and France, the recommendation is 1 m, and in Australia, it’s 1.50 m . In the UK, where I am currently, government guidance, as I am writing this, is that we « can also go for a walk outdoors if [we] stay more than 2 metres from others » . This is also the guidance from Johns Hopkins in the US .
Given the virulence of Covid-19 and its impact on our health services, these are testing times. It’s natural to be nervous, and when we are, it’s easy to get things wrong. Well-founded fears of catching the virus can lead us to be overly hostile in our avoidance of people who cross our paths. A defiant attitude, which can stem from ignorance or irresponsibility but also well-intended kindness, on the other hand, can lead us to lean in too much and put everyone at risk.
Measuring the distance intuitively and with reasonable accuracy is a helpful skill to have. We want to assess if (1) there’s enough space for everyone in the space we’re about to enter, (2) we’re far enough when we cross each other. With regards to safe physical distance guidelines, I will add here that in circulating spaces, where we’re mostly walking around rather that queueing, for instance between shopping aisles in a supermarket or in the streets, it’s probably easier to maintain 2 m rather than 1 m when there are people around, so I will focus on this distance first.
Remember Leonardo’s Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man: the span of one’s arms equals one’s height. I’m 1.70 m (5 ft 5), so when I stretch out my arms, the distance between my fingertips is also 1.70 m.
Think of the taller people you know … and use them as a yardstick. Typically 1.80 m is the height of someone quite tall. My friend, Nico, is 1.80 m; it’s someone I know and whose height I’m familiar with. With his arms outstretched, faisant l’avion, I’ll consider giving Nico a bit of leeway, an extra hand, roughly 10 cm, either side, and there we are, roughly, at 2 m. I’ll call this distance 1 Nico. Think of someone whom you know who’s about that height and you have your estimate for 1 Nico or 2 m too. I could also use as reference my cousin Kavish S. (who is 2.20 m tall, I think), in which case my measure would have been 1 Kavish, but he might be too tall… So I’m sticking to Nico for now.
Survey, then navigate, the space. In Fig 2 and 3, for instance, if everyone or each family group were standing equidistant from each other, then you could fit in, in Fig 2 quite easily 1 Nico (or in fact, 1 Kavish) between them; and in Fig 4 considering the average height of the adults in the photo to be 1.65–1.70 m (again I’ve used my own height to compare), I estimate I can fit in, on average, just under 1 Nico between people.
These spaces are about safe for you to enter, although anywhere denser than what you see in Fig 4 will be unsafe, from a density perspective.
In any case, stay alert as everyone is moving. I find helpful to be especially mindful when people are about 3–4 Nicos away, that is around 6–8 m away from you. At this stage be mindful of your distance and your approach; you are preparing to cross paths. If it’s easier, you can think in terms of strides. 7–8 can be a good count. When you’re closer, ensuring that the closest to the stranger next to you is roughly 1 Nico, that is, it can fit in your tall friend (or cousin), arms outstretched.
While queueing, it may be acceptable to be closer. Government recommendation is 1 m but considering we hardly ever stand stiff upright, it would be better to aim for a wider gap, say 1.5 m. We are looking here at the distance when we stand at the ATM, where the first person in the queue is often over a metre behind the person taking money out. It may be helpful to have other measuring blocks. A normal sized shopping caddie is 80 cm. And 1.5 m is roughly two arm lengths for most adults.
Assert your distance when someone gets too close to you. Put your arm out, and say firmly, “stop! Enn met edmi!” when you’re queueing. If you’re feeling shy, think of a child who has no shame, and who will express themselves clear and loud, and do it. And if you’re crossing paths with people, take a wide berth and perhaps sign “peace & love” for the number two, as in 2 metres. And keep your distance to 1 Nico, the armspan of your tall friend (or cousin).
The occasional trip to the shop or other public place will still be necessary as we go into lockdown. Supermarkets can monitor entry rates and implement measures that would flatten arrival profiles of customers. In any case, they’ll need customers who are willing to cooperate, and the sooner everyone knows how to read Covid-19-safe public densities, the better.
I hope this short guide is helpful.
Note — All other precautionary sanitary measures still apply.