DR. STEVEN Pergam is like a Miss Manners for the age of coronavirus. His job title, after all, is “infection preventionist.” His Twitter avatar is a drawing of him with virus microbes floating in the air around his head.
He’s been practicing the disease-avoidance strategy called “social distancing” for years, long before the arrival of the coronavirus thrust this new etiquette on the rest of us.
“When I see a railing, I do think, ‘How many people have touched that?’ ” says Pergam, an infectious disease specialist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “I walk around thinking about stuff like that.
“But it isn’t out of fear,” he said. “Think of it instead as taking control.”
I called Pergam to find out the do’s and don’ts of social distancing—this hunkering down and avoiding crowds to try to blunt the widespread transmission of the virus. The idea of hiding from an invading pandemic makes perfect sense. But the policy is also filled with loopholes and contradictions (such as why close the farmers markets, but not the grocery stores?)
What I learned is that I’m doing social distancing wrong. It turns out it’s harder than it looks.
“Going out to a bar with friends? I would say no to that,” Pergam said, after I told him I’d been to a brewery for beers one night last week (packed in with plenty of other Seattleites, I noticed).
I also went to a book club meeting at a friend’s house, with about 10 others. Definitely no, Pergam says.
“The test should be: Do you really need to be in a room together?” he said. “Ask yourself that every time. You could have done that book club meeting by video chat, no big deal.”
The point of social distancing isn’t just to keep you from catching the virus. It’s so you don’t then spread it to others, who may pass it on and so on. It’s about making ourselves into a mass community shield for the elderly and others who may have less ability to fight off the virus.
“Think of yourself as one transmission away from being in the same room with someone who is high risk,” he said.
So can I go out to a movie?
“No,” he said.
What about to a restaurant?
“If you do go out to eat, try to go when it’s not super busy. Go at off hours so you’re not crammed in close. Stay six feet apart. Or get your food to go, or have it delivered.”
Same with the grocery store, he said. Plan your trip so you can go once a week instead of bopping in every day. Nobody can isolate entirely, so the goal should be limiting interactions.
Instead of going to a bar, mix some “quarantinis” at home and then Skype or Zoom with your friends. Some microbreweries have announced they will serve this new home culture by delivering growlers.
Pergam said Washington State’s ban last week on events with more than 50 people is great. But from an infection-control standpoint, the cap should be even lower.
“In the beginnings of this outbreak, it’s essential that we get down to the smallest gatherings possible. My preference would be down to 10, or five. Or less if we can.”
What about two? Can we date? If we all have to stay six feet apart, can we have sex anymore?
I may have asked this last question somewhat plaintively. Because the infection preventionist relented a bit, and said ... yes!
“One-on-one interactions are less likely to have broader repercussions,” he said. “So I don’t see any reason you can’t still meet up and go on a date. What we really don’t want is big groups.”
With a partner, “people are still going to live their lives and date and have sex, and that’s OK.”
Pergam said not everyone can stay home for work, or avoid cramming onto buses, so it’s also important not to judge. Plus all the workers at these empty businesses are going to need financial help. Just do as much distancing as you personally can. Every bit helps.
For how long?
“It’s here, and it’s imperative that we slow it down,” he said. “I’m thinking maybe until about June.”
Yikes, til June. So be gentle with each other out there. We’re all going to be muddling through how to do this—apart, by six feet—but also, together.