Does social distancing 6 feet apart indoors keep you safe? A new study says otherwise

Mask up and stay safe

Standing at the social distancing marking sticker - stock photo
(Image credit: Wachirawit Iemlerkchai/Getty Images)

As the world begins to open back up, simple pleasures like indoor dining and going to the movies finally seem possible. According to a new study by MIT, though, social distancing indoors may not be as safe as we initially thought.

Keeping a 6-foot distance between yourself and others outside is still an effective method in decreasing your chances of contracting COVID-19. Indoors though, is another story. 

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MIT researchers are now claiming that the 6-foot rule is based on an outdated understanding regarding how the virus moves in closed spaces. Now, they're claiming that variables, including the number of people in a space, if people are wearing masks, what they are doing, and ventilation levels are far more important. 

The study was released online before its print publication in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS. If you want to have better control over indoor exposure levels, then the study suggests doing individual calculations for the targeted space. This is essential because, as one of the author's notes, in some cases, the exposure level could be the same at 6 feet as at 60 feet.

"The distancing isn't helping you that much, and it's also giving you a false sense of security because you're as safe at 6 feet as you are at 60 feet if you're indoors. Everyone in that space is at roughly the same risk, actually," Martin Bazant, a professor in applied mathematics for MIT, told CNBC.

How can you determine the safety of a room?

With the help of John Bush (another MIT professor in applied mathematics), he and Martin developed a formula that estimates how long it would take for a person to hit dangerous levels of exposure from just one infected person entering a room. The calculation takes into account the number of people in the room, the size of the indoor area, what they are doing if masks are worn, and the type of ventilation being used. From there, it will help determine the risk of exposure and if being 6 feet (or father) apart has any impact in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

What indoor areas are considered high risk?

As scientists continue studying the virus, new information has replaced what we previously thought. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was thought that the virus traveled through heavier droplets typically caused by sneezing or talking out loud. According to Insider, though, new evidence has shown that the virus is present on lighter aerosol droplets that remain suspended in the air and travel farther.

This means that in calmer environments, the droplets will slowly drift to the ground, according to the study. But, the real danger comes in environments that include a lot of talking, sneezing, singing, and eating. The air droplets are suspended in the air longer and will actually mix around the room, too, increasing your exposure.

If you want to decrease your risk for exposure, filtration and ventilation systems will help get virus particles out of the room. 

As researchers continue to develop technology to detect COVID-19, getting vaccinated, staying indoors, and social distancing are the best ways to protect yourself. As countries around the world ramp up vaccine distribution, until you get your additional vaccine dose (depending on which vaccine you get), it's best to take precautions when you leave the house.

Rylee Johnston

Rylee is a U.S. news writer who previously worked for woman&home and My Imperfect Life covering lifestyle, celebrity, and fashion news. Before joining woman&home and My Imperfect Life, Rylee studied journalism at Hofstra University where she explored her interests in world politics and magazine writing. From there, she dabbled in freelance writing covering fashion and beauty e-commerce for outlets such as the TODAY show, American Spa Magazine, First for Women, and Woman’s World.