Skip to content

6 Feet May Not Be Enough Against COVID-19

That's what scientists say in a new report. These are their recommendations.

We hear it daily, a key piece of advice to slow the spread of coronavirus: Maintain six feet of social distance from other people. Public places like stores and banks have marked that distance on the floor to keep people standing in line safe. But just as it's become a way of life, some researchers say that distance may not always be enough to protect people against COVID-19.

In a new report, researchers from MIT and the University of Oxford say other factors—including ventilation, crowd size, duration of exposure, and whether face masks are used—should also be considered when setting social-distancing guidelines. 

"It's not just six feet and then everything else can be ignored, or just mask and everything else can be ignored, or just ventilation and everything else can be ignored," Lydia Bourouiba, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and co-author of the report, told NBC News. Read on to decide when you should get tested, and to keep yourself and others safe during this pandemic, don't miss this essential list of the Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

Singing or talking may spread the virus more than six feet

COVID-19 primarily spreads through respiratory droplets, the spray that comes out of your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. 

The researchers claim that the six-feet recommendation is based on eighty-year-old science—from approximately 1948—about how far droplets can travel before dropping to the ground. "Rules that stipulate a single specific physical distance (1 or 2 metres) between individuals to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19, are based on an outdated, dichotomous notion of respiratory droplet size," the researchers wrote in the report, which was published Tuesday in BMJ.

Instead, there is evidence that the coronavirus may travel more than six feet through activities like exhaling, coughing, singing and shouting, the researchers said. Additionally, there are grades of risk. In higher-risk situations—such as poorly ventilated rooms, large crowds, long durations, and no face masks—safe distancing might need to extend beyond six feet.

RELATED: Your Face Mask Protects You in More Ways Than One, Study Finds

Additionally, back in the day, scientists thought droplets existed in primarily two sizes: Large and small. The large droplets drop (hence their name) while smaller droplets (called aerosols) can linger in the air. Now we know that there are a range of droplet sizes, and how far they travel depends on airflow and exhalation. 

Experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci say there is a chance that coronavirus may be spreading by aerosolization, and research is underway to calculate that risk factor. Those findings might redefine the six-foot rule.

RELATED: Everything Dr. Fauci Has Said About Coronavirus

Social distance based on a range of situations

In the meantime, the BMJ researchers suggest that we take a more nuanced view of social distancing, setting the guidelines based on a range of situations, from low risk to high risk. They created a traffic-light-style tool to help identify that risk based on activity, ventilation level, contact time and face mask use.

The scientists also urged more research into how airflow spreads the virus, what duration of exposure leads to infection, and the droplet size that results from doing various physical activities. 

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19: Wear a face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid large gatherings, practice social distancing, wash your hands regularly, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael