Will social distancing become the new normal?

The first wave of Covid-19 infections is behind us and the Netherlands, as many other countries, is relaxing its corona measures. Now that the country is reopening, will people maintain the same discipline to keep an acceptable distance between each other, as they have during the past months? Or will we collectively become gezellig again and perhaps get too close and comfortable, while Covid-19 is still among us?

Schools across the Netherlands have re-opened their doors on 1 June, as have restaurants, movie theaters, museums and zoos. With the months-long lockdown ending, all kinds of restrictions on our freedoms mandated by the government have been eased. Groups of friends are allowed to meet again, as long as they keep some physical distance and gatherings don’t get too busy and cozy. People over seventy years of age may also receive visitors again, although those living in nursing homes can for now have only one appointed person come over.

This is not to say that we are going back to the old situation pre-corona. The Dutch government headed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte has stressed that new restrictive measures might be re-instated as soon as the country experiences another uptick in Covid-19 cases.

Six-foot society
At the same time, the question is whether the population at large will continue to stick to the rules that still apply. During the first lockdown, that lasted from March till June, the Dutch showed a remarkably disciplined restraint, staying mostlt indoors and keeping physical distance. Commentators coined the term anderhalvemetersamenleving (six-foot society), where social and economic life is organized around people keeping a distance of about 1.5 metres between each other.

The vast majority of the populace accepted these measures as proposed by Dutch and international health experts, although small anti-lockdown groups opposed them as too stringent and went out to protest them. It now appears that a growing number of people is finding it increasingly difficult to follow social distancing rules. Many restaurant and bar owners find the measures still in place too unwieldy to do business. Youngsters getting together with friends say they oppose mind the rules, but just miss being up and close with their peers. As the number of corona cases and casualties has declined so has the fear of the disease and the motivation to be careful.

Some in the scientific world also argue that the Dutch cabinet’s previous coronavirus measures, known as the ‘intelligent lockdown’, have gone too far. Maurice de Hond, who regularly publishes polls on a wide range of political and societal topics, has taken a closer look at various corona studies worldwide. The pollster draws several conclusions about the coronavirus, for example that very small droplets released when breathing, called aerosols, play a major role in the spread of the coronavirus in indoor areas.

Based on research at the Bonn University Virology Institute among others, De Hond stipulates that, as contamination is mainly airborne and hardly occurs in the open air, keeping 1.5 metres distance outdoors does not make much sense. Good ventilation indoors, as well as surface disinfection, washing your hands and staying home when you feel sick, will go a long way to protecting people, he argues. Furthermore, as the vast majority of the coronavirus casualties is over 75, that group ought to be protected in the best possible way. “But we should let the rest of the people live their lives in a normal way as much as possible and protect the economy,” he says.

The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), which leads the national effort against Covid-19, has written however that it is still not clear what role aerosols play in the spread of the virus. An RIVM study is ongoing, but it is still too early for conclusions, RIVM boss Jaap van Dissel has stated about airborne infections.

The new normal?
As the lockdown was winding down in June, Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the United States and inspired numerous similar protests around the world, including in the Netherlands. Thousands of people came out to join demonstrations in the bigger cities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. In some cases, the authorities were unable to guarantee sufficient physical distance between protesters as they were gathering en masse on the Dam and around the Erasmus Bridge.

It is too soon to know whether these large gatherings will cause a second wave of infections in the country. But as a vaccine against Covid-19 is yet to be developed, many wonder if we will ever go back to life as we knew it. The Dutch planning bureaus SCP, CPB and PBL issued a joint opinion piece for the first time, advising the government against the use of terms like ‘six-foot society’ and ‘the new normal’, because they suggest that temporary measures become permanent in nature. They said: “The aim of the recovery should not be a society in which people have to stay 1.5 meters apart at all times and everywhere. It’s not what people want and they certainly don’t see it as a ‘new normal’.” Emphasizing this too much would cause demoralisation among the population and may people to ignore the directive on a large scale. Yet, as of now, it’s not clear when this requirement may be ended.

Written by Johannes Visser