Public still getting the hang of social distancing

A queue of customers formed outside the Calexico Walmart Friday morning illustrates the difficulty people are having in practicing social distancing. PHOTO ARTURO BOJORQUEZ

EL CENTRO — New habits are hard. It isn’t human nature to want to leave space in queueing situations, but keeping those gaps are important.

Even with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide “shelter in place” order requiring residents to “stay at home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of federal critical infrastructure sectors,” there are still reasons people need to go out and good practices to follow when they do so.

Newsom’s order, “enforceable pursuant to California Law, including, but not limited to Government Code 8665” (i.e. failure to adhere is technically punishable by a fine of $1,000 or a prison term of up to six months — though most early violations across the state appear to have been met with warnings), is the most dramatic state-level response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis yet, affecting nearly 40 million people.

Translating the opaque bureaucrat-ese, the order basically boils down to, “Don’t go anywhere you don’t have to; don’t do anything you don’t have to.”

It comes hot on the heels of shelter orders in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County, as well as countless smaller declarations of emergency, including those by the Imperial County Department of Public Health, the cities of El Centro, Imperial, Brawley, Calexico and others.

The magnitude of the governor’s order should serve to demonstrate, if any additional evidence was needed, that COVID-19 is much more than an idle inconvenience. Yet people still need to get out and about. They need food. They need water. They may work in an “essential” industry. It may even be that they just need to see the sun every once in a while.

Going out for any and all of these reasons is permissible under the current shelter-in-place guidelines. The state of California’s official COVID-19 website also lists pharmacies, gas stations, banks and laundromats as places permissible to visit.

But what should trips outside the home look like? What precautions need to be taken to ensure that you or your loved ones (or even simply strangers you happen across) don’t get sick?

Public health officials have plenty of recommendations, little things that can help fight the spread of COVID and other contagious airborne pathogens — regular handwashing is a biggie — but nothing is more important than social distancing, which is actually mandatory locally, per Imperial County’s Public Health Department.

Unfortunately, “social distancing” like “shelter in place” it is just vague enough to cause some confusion among those it’s supposed to keep safe.

So what is social distancing? The main idea actually very simple: Keep as much space between yourself and others as possible. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends a minimum of 6 feet.

This buffer zone is supposed to be maintained at all times in public places. Currently many Valley residents are not managing to maintain this distance when doing things like standing in line at the grocery store.

However, COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease. The CDC and World Health Organizations have data indicating that it is roughly twice as virulent as the flu, with each infected persons passing the disease on to 2 to 2.5 others and 10 percent to 20 percent of cases requiring hospitalization.

Each foot of distance lessens the chance of spread.

To sum up: A conscientious practitioner of social distancing spends as much time at home as is possible. Not as much as they can stand. As is possible.

If a trip to the store is needed, it is OK to go, but shoppers should minimize contact with shared surfaces, wash their hands before and after they’re done, buy twice as much as they think they need, and keep that 6-foot buffer active. Shoulder-to-shoulder checkout lines are to be avoided.

This same framework can be applied to trips to banks, pharmacies, etc.

If homebound life gets to be too much to bear, taking walks is acceptable, but care should still be taken to avoid other pedestrians.

It is not advisable, however, that boredom be alleviated by inviting others over to your home. Such gatherings run afoul of shelter-in-place guidelines regardless of whether they’re indoors or out.

Sports Editor Aaron Bodus can be reached at or 760-337-3434.

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