It was a beautiful weekend in much of the country, which meant it was prime time to shame city dwellers for not adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Several photos popped up on social media of the Christopher Street Pier in the West Village and Central Park with captions conveying varying degrees of * extremely New York accent* “You call this social distancing?” Reuters even picked up the story, writing about “crowded conditions at Christopher Street Pier in Greenwich Village, according to photos on social media.”
Those look pretty bad, but my colleague Joseph Cox found photos of the pier taken from different angles that suggest the crowding may not have been as severe as the one photo above suggests.
The problem here is that photos taken from a specific head-on angle are a terrible way to precisely measure crowd density, because photos lack accurate depth perception. It is incredibly difficult to judge depth perception with any degree of precision from a single photo, which fundamentally imposes a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional photo. The effect is exaggerated when taking a photo across larger spaces with lots of objects, as parks with people tend to be. Such a photo won’t capture the empty spaces between objects, so it makes spaces seem more crowded than they are. It’s a perfect recipe for making a park seem more crowded than it is. Moreover, the recommended six feet for social distancing isn’t that far. I am 5’11”, so it’s basically one me. It would be very difficult to tell from a photo taken 100 feet away if two people are four feet, six feet, or nine feet apart.
I did not go to Central Park or the Christopher Street Pier this weekend. I did, however, go to Prospect Park, which also received some, but not as much, social distance shaming. And it was fine. People mostly wore masks and stayed a good six feet apart at least, especially on the grassy areas. Friends and coworkers reported similar conditions at parks around the city this weekend: crowded but compliant.
This isn’t to say there definitely wasn’t a problem at Christopher Street Pier or Hudson River Park or anywhere else eyewitness accounts claim to have witnessed social distancing violations. But a photo posted to social media can very easily be misleading.
For anybody horrified about the idea of people hanging out on blankets together, it's worth remembering that social distancing is only required for people who do not live together. It is quite possible, even likely, that people laying on the same blanket, or on blankets close to one another, live together, which is also something to keep in mind when eyeballing a photo.
Part of the social distance shaming feels like an attempt to instill some order and rules on a crisis that often feels unknowable and impossible to solve. Where is safe? What should we be doing? Should we wear masks or not wear masks? That lack of certainty about what we should even be doing has made it difficult to psychologically cope. The six feet rule, if nothing else, gives us a rule to follow.
The problem is that risk does not operate in binaries, and viruses do not oblige by such stark rules where you are either in compliance and therefore not getting sick or violating the rules and going to die. Six feet outdoors in a breezy park does not convey the same health risks as six feet inside an SUV with the A/C on.
In general, the outdoors pose a lower risk to coronavirus transmission than indoors. A month ago, The Atlantic ran a really informative article that, based on the available evidence at the time, suggested the benefits far outweigh the risks when it comes to outdoor activities. Meanwhile, a recent study out of China (yet to be peer reviewed) found that, in case reports from 320 municipalities, nearly all of the coronavirus outbreaks infecting three or more people occurred indoors, suggesting there is relatively little risk in outdoor activities.
Of course, everyone should still abide by social distancing guidelines and wear masks when in public. But be skeptical of the photo or video posted to social media purporting to be evidence of widespread social distancing violations, because it may not be showing what you think it is. It might just be a bunch of responsible people trying to make the best of a bad situation.