March 23, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

On March 19th the Centers for Disease Control issued a press release detailing changes to its operational strategy for K-12 students. It stated that among other things, students may now reduce their social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet. The release begins as follows,

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is updating K12 school guidance to reflect the latest science on physical distance between students in classrooms. CDC now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings. CDC has updated its operational strategy to say:

  • In elementary schools, CDC recommends all students remain at least 3 feet apart in classrooms where mask use is universal — regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial, or high.
  • In middle and high schools, CDC also recommends students should be at least 3 feet apart in classrooms where mask use is universal and in communities where transmission is low, moderate, or substantial.

Although this updated guideline is still ridiculous, it’s at least more in line with the established science on the transmission of airborne diseases, not whatever we have been working with for the current pandemic. 

In an essay published in 2006, Dr. Donald Henderson, most famous for leading the eradication of smallpox, noted that the US Department of Health and Human Services recommended that social distancing measures of at least 3 feet be used. The World Health Organization has maintained since the beginning of the pandemic that 1 meter or roughly 3 feet would be the optimal minimum social distancing protocol. Reuters notes that,

“The further you stand away from someone, the fewer droplets you will be exposed to. One meter only prevents you from being exposed to the largest of droplets; two meters reduces your exposure – but doesn’t make it zero risk.”

A study in The Lancet this month found that physical distancing of at least 1m lowers risk of COVID-19 transmission, but that 2m could be more effective.”

It is of course necessary to note that not seeing anyone at all is the most effective way to prevent transmission but that isn’t realistic, just like staying six feet away from everybody. The point is that the scientific consensus says that 3 feet of social distancing is effective at reducing transmission. It will always be more effective to be as far as possible but to say that 6 feet is the minimum is not only unrealistic but unscientific. 

In fact, the United States has some of the strictest social distancing measures in the world. Reuters notes,

“China, Denmark, France, Hong Kong and Singapore recommend social distancing of 1 meter, and many people also choose to, or are required to, wear face masks in public spaces.

Australia, Belgium, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal advise people to keep 1.5m apart. Switzerland this week also reduced the required distance to 1.5m from 2m.

The guidance in the United States is six feet, or 1.8m.”

Although K-12 students may begin to observe a 3-foot rule rather than a 6-foot rule, the CDC still maintains the rest of the population abide by the latter. However, it is worth noting that any official recommendation at all is futile and ignorant because it is virtually impossible to observe any social distancing policy consistently. Although it is certainly good information to keep in mind that maintaining distance from others may help reduce the spread of infectious diseases, social distancing should not be hailed as the key to stopping a virus as it has with Covid-19.

Dr. Henderson explained this common sense critique of social distancing mandates when he wrote,

“It has been recommended that individuals maintain a distance of 3 feet or more during a pandemic so as to diminish the number of contacts with people who may be infected. The efficacy of this measure is unknown. It is typically assumed that transmission of droplet-spread diseases, such as influenza, is limited to “close contacts”—that is, being within 3–6 feet of an infected person. Keeping a space of 3 feet between individuals might be possible in some work environments, but it is difficult to imagine how bus, rail, or air travelers could stay 3 feet apart from each other throughout an epidemic. And such a recommendation would greatly complicate normal daily tasks like grocery shopping, banking, and the like.”

Although Dr. Henderson noted this in 2006, it seems like we have had to rediscover this truth in 2020. 

Why Is This Important 

Although it is good to see the CDC slowly relaxing its policies and embracing established science, there is something far more important at play. That is recognizing how overly risk-averse the CDC has always been and how damaging this has been for the perception of public health. Robby Soave from Reason notes,

“It’s important to keep in mind that the CDC has always urged people to follow impractically cautious health guidelines. For instance, the CDC currently recommends that men consume no more than two alcoholic drinks and that women consume no more than one drink, each day. The agency’s clear preference is for people not to consume alcohol at all. It recommends that all women who possess the capacity to be pregnant abstain from drinking entirely. It would be very funny, then, if the CDC suddenly published guidance that it was once again safe to flock to bars and restaurants. That’s not something the CDC believed, even in normal times. If COVID-19 vanished from the earth overnight, government health officials would still urge you to never eat raw cookie dough.”

There will likely never be a time when the recommendations of public health completely intersect with normal societal functions, which is why they should remain recommendations, not law if they are to be broadcasted at all. There will be a concerted effort in the next few years to rewrite the narrative to suggest that because of the leadership of the CDC and the lockdown governors, America was spared from further devastation. However, all they did was crush society under the boot of authoritarianism while doing little to protect the vulnerable from the virus. 

The change from 6 feet to 3 feet is a welcome trickle of common sense and established science. However, we should understand that this otherwise trivial reduction of distance is representative of the long and problematic relationship between public health bureaucrats and the normal functioning of society. 

The CDC along with overprotective public health experts have always had a long list of absurd and unrealistic recommendations for society. In the age of Covid-19, we finally gave them the keys to control and now we have seen firsthand the dystopia they would create. It is important that we establish this fact and learn this lesson, because those who intend to write history may see things differently.

Ethan Yang

Ethan Yang

Ethan joined AIER in 2020 as an Editorial Assistant and is a graduate of Trinity College. He received a BA in Political Science alongside a minor in Legal Studies and Formal Organizations.

He currently serves as Local Coordinator at Students for Liberty and the Director of the Mark Twain Center for the Study of Human Freedom at Trinity College.

Prior to joining AIER, he interned at organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Connecticut State Senate, and the Cause of Action Institute.

Ethan is currently based in Washington D.C.

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