Social distancing appears to be working but a lot of people are still struggling with it

Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed some optimism today about the impact social distancing efforts were having on the spread of the coronavirus. “We’re starting to see glimmers that that is actually having some dampening effect,” he said. The LA Times published a story today which also suggests social distancing is working based on the outcomes in California vs. New York:

The Bay Area stunned the nation on March 16 when health officers in six counties jointly ordered residents to shelter in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2. Eleven other California counties soon joined the order, and on March 19 it was expanded statewide by Newsom.

New York state, by contrast, issued a stay-at-home order on March 20, and made it effective on March 22.

California’s earlier, aggressive stay-at-home order is one reason why a model published by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests that New York state will see its worst day of the epidemic in early April, and that it will be dramatically worse than California’s worst day.

But a lot depends on how seriously people follow the guidelines. The models that are estimating the outcome assume there will be compliance, but there’s plenty of evidence that people everywhere are struggling to do that. Sunday a man in Oakland shot this video of at least a hundred people gathered in the street watching a truck do donuts in an intersection.

Also Sunday, California announced it was closing parking lots at state parks because for two weekends in a row, the parks had been packed with people.

The same thing has been happening at parks in New York City, despite the city being the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. Monday the hospital ship Comfort arrived in New York City to help take the burden of non-coronavirus patients off the city’s hospitals. Dozens of people gathered to take pictures:

All of the examples above are avoidable. No one has to go out for pictures of a ship or to watch a street race. But what about the things we all have to do, like shopping for food? A local station in Jacksonville, Florida sent a crew out to see how things were going at a small market and a laundromat around the corner. What they found was crowds of people packed closely together. The laundromat had 55 people inside, most seated closely together along the wall.

I guess the question I have is why the people in the laundromat don’t go outside to avoid being packed in a room with a bunch of strangers? We’ve all heard the guidance by now that says if you stay six feet away from other people you’re probably safe from the spread of the virus. But that’s really just a rough guideline. It’s not necessarily going to keep everyone safe:

Lydia Bourouiba, an associate professor at MIT, has researched the dynamics of exhalations (coughs and sneezes, for instance) for years at The Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory and found exhalations cause gaseous clouds that can travel up to 27 feet…

The idea that droplets “hit a virtual wall and stop there and after that we are safe,” is not based on evidence found in her research, Bourouiba said, and also not based on “evidence that we have about COVID transmission.”

Six feet may turn out to be more of a minimum safe distance. It doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick but it probably reduces the chances significantly. In any case, it’s clear that many people are still struggling with this concept or simply don’t care at all. At this point I think it’s pretty clear that the only way to keep people from gathering on beaches and in parks is to close them. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do about crowded markets and laundromats though. One idea is to promote the use of masks in public.