Gotham Gazette

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Take It from Someone Who Connects People Socially: Now’s The Time for Social Distancing

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It's time for social distancing in New York (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

Much of my life’s work has been about building in-person social connections. Now, I'm wrestling with how to understand and participate in "social distancing" as a way to confront the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

I help run a network of hundreds of political social events around the country that has created friendships and solidarity through face-to-face gatherings. I'm also chair of the board of The Tank, a Manhattan theater that runs 20 shows a week and supports 1,000 performers every year while welcoming tens of thousands of audience members through its doors. I'm a parent whose kids need affirming contact and need to run as free as city life allows. I once gave a speech about the importance of hugs.

And as a candidate for public office, I'm in the handshake and house party game.

Yet, the way we slow or stop the spread of a virus is by reducing the number of people each of us—even those of us who are healthy and less at risk—come into contact with. In addition to measures like washing our hands, staying home if we're sick, and working from home, "social distancing" is the recommendation by public health officials to ultimately do less harm to the community around us.

It’s a frustrating irony that at the moment of a public health crisis—when there's fear and isolation and stigma and misinformation, and when community, friendship, solidarity, neighborliness, personal connection, and social capital may be more critical than ever for many of us—we have to distance ourselves from each other, at least physically.

My mind goes to the individuals who already feel isolated or alone and for whom this moment could intensify those feelings. To those who need others, physically or emotionally, to get through the day. And to those whose roles—at work or at home—demand they care for others.

And then it goes to those people whose fields are about creating community spaces and connections: coffee shop owners and staff, folks who run recreation leagues and gardening clubs and afterschool activities, and of course those in the performing arts who deliver the electric thrill of live performance in an era dominated by screen time.

“Social distancing” is hard for some of us—but nearly impossible for others—and a quarantine is a real physical, emotional, and financial risk to many. And yet, far from being anti-social, social distancing is the most pro-social act we can take, because those of us who have the privilege to do it are able to help those who can’t.

Social distancing is a reduction, not the elimination, of human contact. And it shouldn’t mean checking out of society or hiding away in a bubble. Check on your elderly neighbors and offer to shop for them, because it may be important that they not shop on their own. When you shop, take what you need, but don't hoard months of supplies and add to an amplified panic. 

Be kind and grateful to the folks who continue to do their jobs, cashing you out, delivering your mail, stocking shelves, driving a cab, signing you in at the doctor. That means following their rules, respecting their space, asking before you make contact, covering your mouth, avoiding them if you're sick, and saying thank you. And I'd even suggest that if you're not sick, you should continue to patronize restaurants and cafes and bars that aren't crowded, because if they aren't crowded, you can keep a social distance from others—and the venue can probably use your money.

As the weather gets nicer, get outside if you can. 

Yes, wash your hands, carry tissues, cough into your elbow—literally the least you can do. 

And when social distancing has helped level out this coronavirus, get ready for serious socializing: Show up at birthday parties and school functions, and take in a night of theater (or several!) to bring back that joy and vibrancy that we'll miss.

We need government to act to ensure the social safety net, from health care to paid sick leave to unemployment insurance, and we need employers to do what they can to support their employees' health and well-being. There are myriad policy solutions at this moment, and many more that we need long-term to address the societal weaknesses this emergency has laid bare. But even while we demand that our government and businesses do more, we need to act as individuals for the sake of the larger society—reducing contact where we can and ensuring connection where it's most needed.

I once gave a graduation speech about the importance of hugs. Now, I'm facing a few weeks of waves, nods, and elbow bumps. It's not because I don't care about you but because I do. And we'll be back to hugging soon.

Justin Krebs is director of campaigns at MoveOn and a candidate for City Council in Brooklyn’s District 39. On Twitter @justinmkrebs.

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