Slowing the spread of coronavirus: Why some people aren't social distancing

Health officials are instituting measures to decrease mass gatherings.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, colleges and businesses throughout the country are shutting down campuses or shifting to working from home.

Health officials are instituting measures to decrease the number of mass gatherings and public events are being postponed, companies are implementing work from home policies and universities are canceling in-person classes.

Social distancing, a term that means actively avoiding crowded public places, is a key element in decreasing the rapid spread of COVID-19, which scientists call "flattening the curve." This is an effort intended to "limit exposure by reducing face-to-face contact and preventing spread among people in community settings," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention telebriefing to the media.

But some may be viewing this as an early start to spring break partying and social get-togethers.

"The first day that school was canceled, people went out to a bar during the day and got Corona beers," a graduate student in New York City told ABC News.

PHOTO: A street performer sits alone at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, Thursday, March 12, 2020.
A street performer sits alone at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Jeff Chiu/AP

With the weather warming up, parks and public spaces appear to be more packed than ever, raising the question: Are people overlooking the reasoning for these recommendations or are they just throwing caution to the wind?

"Students were playing spike ball on the lawns. The class cancellations produced more mass gatherings, which were exactly what the school was trying to prevent," an undergraduate student at Columbia University told ABC News.

Risk perception experts say that empowering the public with information and educating them about the risks is essential for smooth cooperation -- something that may be lacking in certain circumstances. According to the graduate student, "the theory behind canceling wasn't explained."

However, some find that adjusting to these new norms can be a challenge even when equipped with the reason for their importance. The Columbia student said that although the school was informative about their rationale for moving classes online, "students don't feel it will be as effective and are less engaged."

"I think a range of responses would be expected," said Dr. Jennifer Beckjord, senior director of Clinical Services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital. "The typical college student may not be feeling stressed by the widespread implications of the situation because they may not be seeing confirmed cases of COVID-19 on their campuses, have significant investments in the stock market or be in the workforce, and therefore are not directly affected."

A 41-year-old employee working from home for a major company in Boston said they think part of the disconnect may be due to age.

"I think that's partially related to reaching an age where people are in the same boat with me in terms of having older parents and children or other relatives with health challenges; they understand that this virus poses a serious health risk," the employee said. "Younger coworkers seem to be taking it a little less seriously."

"People our age sometimes feel like they'll be fine no matter what, not realizing that they could spread this to older people or those with weaker immune systems," said the graduate student.

The Columbia student echoed this sentiment, saying, "We felt like we were removed enough from the potential exposure and at this point, it was a joke rather than a serious concern."

Beckjord agreed that it may be more difficult for people to recognize the significance or risk when they are in a situation where it hasn't hit home yet, and that their widely variable responses depend on what information they are actively seeking out.

"We don't have context to compare this to, and people in their personal lives may not yet be affected," Beckjord said. "It doesn't feel real -- that could certainly be a factor."

Health experts are urging the public to comply with recommendations. However, this will require consistent and transparent messaging from organizations of all kinds -- government, corporations and religious institutions -- about the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of social changes.

"People need to understand that there are personal responsibilities that we're asking everyone in the United States to take to make sure that they're doing their best to protect themselves and their families and their communities," Messonnier said recently on a CDC briefing.

Eden David is studying neuroscience at Columbia University and matriculating to medical school later this year. Melanie R. Graber, M.D., is an internal medicine resident physician at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Chloë E. Nunneley, M.D., is a pediatric resident physician at Boston Children's Hospital & Boston Medical Center. They are all contributors in the ABC News Medical Unit.

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