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You know to stay at least 6 feet apart from other people when you go outside. Does that mean you can hang out with friends, as long as you maintain your distance? A lot of people have written in to ask us.

Yes and no, experts said.

Yes, staying 6 feet apart will likely prevent one person from infecting another, so hanging out like that would be fine, said Aline M. Holmes, a clinical professor at Rutgers University School of Nursing at Newark, N.J.

"You can go outside, and it's actually a good idea, for fresh air, but yes, you have to stay at least 6 feet away from anyone else," she said.

But that comes with a pretty big asterisk.

"Just be aware that it's 6 feet to the best of our knowledge," Holmes said. "But why bet your money on that?"

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Because so much is unknown about the coronavirus, solid answers are hard to get.

"It's kind of like walking this fine line where 6 feet, we're pretty sure you're going to be OK," she said. "But why test it and then find out it's 7 feet?"

Holmes and other experts recognized that people have been cooped up, feeling like they have to get outside. And that's OK, they said. You're allowed to get your exercise, including going for walks and runs. You're allowed to go to the store.

What you shouldn't do is hang out, even if you can maintain enough distance that you won't spread the virus, said Suzanne Willard, associate dean of global health at Rutgers School of Nursing at Newark.

"What are our elected officials telling us? They're telling us to stay at home. So it's gone beyond social distancing. It's not just about 6 feet, it's staying home," she said. "If you want to hang out with your friends, there's Zoom."

It's best to not try to find the exact line to walk up to, Willard said. Instead, you should follow the guidance and stay home except for individual exercise or essential trips, such as to buy groceries.

"At this point, if we stay home, this thing will be over a lot faster than if we go test the waters," Willard said.

Among other concerns, the experts said, is that you might maintain distance while hanging out with your friend, but touch objects such as doorknobs that have the virus on them. Or you might accidentally pass by or even bump into someone else while outside.

There are also concerns about how well people can even maintain the physical distance, the experts said.

Are you sure you're able to stay at least 6 feet away? Will you be able to tell exactly how far apart you are?

"There are going to be people who will push that to the limit," said Judith J. Lightfoot, chief of infectious disease at Rowan University's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, N.J.

Lightfoot also worried that some people won't be able to help themselves. Being near a close friend or loved one, they might want to get closer.

"Don't tempt it," she said. "Don't try to say, 'Well, OK, I can just get closer to you.'"

Staying 6 feet apart, the experts said, is for when you have to go outside and be near other people. But the higher priority is to stay at home and not be exposed to others in the first place.

Better to err on the side of caution, they said.

"That's the whole thing with 'social distancing' -- the word social means 'Oh, I can be social as long as I stay away.' No. We don't know enough about this virus," Willard said. "If folks are telling us to stay home, we need to listen to them."

"And it is hard. I mean come on, it's going to be gorgeous out there. It's hard to stay home," she said. That doesn't mean go to the park with friends. Her suggestion: "Take a drive."

High Profile on 04/19/2020

Print Headline: Experts warn not to push social distancing

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