Six feet is the measure of the year.
Say “six feet” to any American in January or February of this year, and it would mean nothing. Say “six feet” to any American from March till now, and they immediately know what it means: the relatively safe distance between you and another person, if you’re wearing masks, given the fatal pandemic that has taken the lives of 180,000 Americans in the past six months.
So we are called on to “socially distance”; to stay at least six feet apart from each other, except when absolutely necessary, to avoid infecting, or be infected by, a virus primarily spread by airborne particles in people’s breath.
This is not the first case where a misbegotten word or phrase—in this instance, “socially distancing” —has slipped into the ground floor about a national crisis ready to explode.
Witness “homeland security.” Before September 11, 2001, no one in the United States used the world “homeland,” except in pejorative references to the mindset of Nazi Germany.
In those years, people in the United States used to speak of “the heartland” —those states in the middle of the nation whose probity and common sense outshone anything that could be offered up by the decadent strips of states along the East or West Coasts.
People in those coastal strips thought they weren’t necessarily all that different from the alleged “heartland,” but no one got all that exercised about it.
Come the terrorists of 9/11, though, and suddenly the United States is a “homeland.” But we can guarantee that few if Americans said or even thought about the word “homeland” in the prior decade, if at all.
Okay, back to “socially distancing.” What we’re really talking about here is “physically distancing,” a general rule of thumb to avoid whenever possible coming within six feet of another person, who may or may not be infected.
But the term “social distancing” came in, perhaps with its tie-in to the kind of social encounters that now were a lot less safe than nine months previously. And the phrase stuck. And now we’re stuck with it.
As long ago as late March, Dr. Asaf Bitton, a global health expert at Harvard Medical School, told Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times that he didn’t like the phrase.
“When we say social distancing, it’s an isolating concept,” Dr. Bitton said. “It’s really about physical distancing while maintaining social connections. If we’re going to do this for a while, we’re going to have to find new ways to be socially connected to each other.”
Has that ever been the case. Early on, unease grew over what the pandemic might mean for the already socially isolated senior citizens, living alone in their apartment.
Now worry has sprung up about what the pandemic could mean in terms of social isolation of people in general, not just the elderly.
As a matter of safety, just like the wearing of masks, people have cut way back on their casual contacts: those individuals in our daily lives that we would say hello to, but not attempt to have any deeper or longer interaction with.
Businesses whose models, we now realize, were built on spacing of less than six feet have been especially hit hard by the pandemic, especially bars. Restaurants also have found themselves constricted, aside whether anyone is coming in to dine in the first place.
So all those interactions once part of so many of our lives—the favorite waitress, the amiable bartender, the regulars who you would see over and again—have been sliced away, and sometimes eliminated.
But the social world that has taken the most serious hit in most of our lives has been that of the workplace.
Before the internet, producing goods or services usually entailed bringing together a group of people into one place, be it a bank or a factory or an office or a school.
Our technology has evolved to the point where, in contrast to just 20 years ago or less, you no longer have to have most of a business’s employees working together under a single roof week in and week out to produce, say, a newspaper.
In pre-pandemic days, our co-workers often provided us with a de facto second family. We’d get to know them, and end up sharing parts of our lives with some of them, not to mention engaging in routine conversations with many of them.
The serendipity of encountering another employee at her desk, and catching up how work is going for her and what she brought in for lunch, has been reduced now to an email or a phone call, or not even that.
We have to make an effort; in honesty, many of us would admit that we will do so for some co-workers, but not for others.
But while the pandemic is closing down many of our conversations and interactions, it ironically seems to be reinvigorating relationships that almost never were any closer than six feet apart. Indeed, they were more like hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
More than a few of us have dusted off some long-ago email exchanges or dug into little address books from 20 or 30 years ago to reach out to that former classmate or co-worker, or a relative who seems to have slipped off the Christmas card list a few years ago.
How are you? we ask. Are you okay? What is going on in your life? And then there’s the rapid summary of years or even decades in just five or 10 minutes: the marriages, the divorces, the births and deaths, work history, the latest on long-ago mutual friends.
The pandemic has been a terrible disaster, and it’s not over yet. In fact, it shows signs of growing worse. We all just want to survive, for our loved ones to survive, to make it to those days in the future when a vaccine will be available and standing unmasked closer than six feet to someone is no longer a potentially fatal roll of the dice.
But we also have to acknowledge that the pandemic, due to its unique aspects, also has filtered into our lives in sometimes unexpected, positive ways.
We’ll all be glad when this is over. But we’ll also be glad that, back during the pandemic, we reconnected with so many old friends.