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How social distancing works and what it means for you

NEW YORK (AP) — Can my kids go on a play date? Is it OK if I visit the gym?

In this time of coronavirus, once-easy questions have suddenly become complex.

Here are some questions and answers about the “social distancing” efforts to slow the epidemic in the U.S.

What is social distancing?

Social distancing are practices implemented by public health officials to keep contagious diseases from spreading.

The measures are aimed at trying to cut down the amount of virus spreading around, and ultimately protect those most vulnerable, including the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

What measures have been taken?

Governments have closed borders, and millions of workers and students have been ordered to stay home. On Monday, U.S. officials recommended that older people and those with underlying health conditions “stay home and away from other people.” The U.S. is also telling people not to gather in large groups.

And experts also recommend people try to stay at least 6 feet (about 2 meters) away from each other.

Why 6 feet?

Experts believe the virus is mainly spread through droplets that come out of your mouth and nose. When an infected person speaks or exhales or coughs or sneezes, the droplets travel about 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters) before gravity pulls them to the ground.

“They fall pretty quickly,” said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, an infectious disease expert at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

It’s important to try to block coughs or sneezes with a tissue or your sleeve, so as to not send those droplets flying directly toward someone nearby.

Can I go outside at all?

Yes, with some exceptions. And the guidelines vary based on where you live.

“We’re not being told to stay at home and lock the doors,” said Dr. Willam Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert. “We’re not there yet, and I don’t think we’ll get there.”

People who have coughs and sneezes should stay home as much as possible, and call ahead to the doctor’s office if they’re planning to get their illness checked out, he added.

People who have confirmed coronavirus illness should stay home, as should those who were in close contact with a confirmed case.

Where can I go?

Options are becoming limited, with school, gym and restaurant closures in some places, and work-from-home edicts.

Officials in six San Francisco-area counties on Monday told nearly 7 million people to stay inside and venture out only for necessities.

If you live someplace without such restrictions, it’s best just to use good judgment. If restaurants are open, it’s OK to go to eat. But go in a small group and try to get a table away from others.

It’s necessary to buy food. But try to go to the supermarket at times when it’s less crowded, stay 6 feet away from other shoppers as much as you can, and wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.

Can I go to the gym?

Exercise is important. But maybe stick to the machines, wiping them down before and after you use them, and skip games of basketball or other activities that put you in close physical contact with others. If possible, cut back on the gym and go for jogs, walks or bike rides instead, experts said.

What about social gatherings?

The CDC on Sunday recommended that for the next eight weeks, organizers put off events that would draw at least 50 people. On Monday, the number was reduced to 10.

That could ice a lot of weddings, family reunions and birthday parties.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the federal response to the virus, said the change from 50 to 10 was influenced by research that tried to estimate the impact of different possible steps.

A CDC official, Dr. Jay Butler, said Monday there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Officials are simply trying to set a reasonable parameter to “increase social distancing while not creating social isolation,” he said in an interview streamed by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Can I go on dates? Or send my kids on play dates?

There’s some debate among experts about dates and play dates.

Adults who are not sick or considered to be at risk can still date, Schaffner said. But skip the bars, concerts and crowded theaters, and instead think about an intimate dinner at home.

For kids, play dates can be OK, especially if they’re outside in parks and involve a small number of kids, he said. Of course, kids who are sick or who are particularly vulnerable to respiratory illness should not go, he added.

Weatherhead had different advice, saying play dates are not recommended. Children generally have had more mild COVID-19 illnesses and therefore might spread the disease before anyone realizes they are sick.

Can I still pet, or interact, with animals?

Yes, with caution.

The CDC website states, “in the United States, there is no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets, livestock or wildlife, might be a source of COVID-19 infection at this time.”

Additionally, if you’re concerned about your dog’s health, the CDC has also found no cases of pets getting sick from COVID-19.

Still, a pet can carry any number of germs, and its owner may be susceptible or carrying COVID-19, so it’s recommended you practice good hygiene and follow the other recommendations for social distancing.

Will social distancing work?

It will be tricky to prove these measures made a difference.

Testing for the coronavirus was delayed in the U.S., but it is now starting to become more widely available. That means a lot of new cases may be diagnosed in the coming days, as labs finally find infections that happened weeks ago.

“We’re going to see increasing (case) numbers, and that’s going to be frustrating to people who are doing social distancing. But that doesn’t mean social distancing isn’t working,” Weatherhead said.

PBS NewsHour’s Justin Stabley contributed to this report.