The risk of being exposed to Covid-19 indoors is as great at 60 feet as it is at 6 feet — even when wearing a mask, according to a new study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers who challenge social distancing guidelines adopted across the world.
MIT professors Martin Z. Bazant, who teaches chemical engineering and applied mathematics, and John W.M. Bush, who teaches applied mathematics, developed a method of calculating exposure risk to Covid-19 in an indoor setting that factors in a variety of issues that could affect transmission, including the amount of time spent inside, air filtration and circulation, immunization, variant strains, mask use, and even respiratory activity such as breathing, eating, speaking or singing.
“We argue there really isn’t much of a benefit to the 6-foot rule, especially when people are wearing masks,” Bazant said in an interview. “It really has no physical basis because the air a person is breathing while wearing a mask tends to rise and comes down elsewhere in the room so you’re more exposed to the average background than you are to a person at a distance.”
Opening windows or installing new fans to keep the air moving could also be just as effective or more effective than spending large amounts of money on a new filtration system, he said.
“What our analysis continues to show is that many spaces that have been shut down in fact don’t need to be. Often times the space is large enough, the ventilation is good enough, the amount of time people spend together is such that those spaces can be safely operated even at full capacity and the scientific support for reduced capacity in those spaces is really not very good,” Bazant said. “I think if you run the numbers, even right now for many types of spaces you’d find that there is not a need for occupancy restrictions.”
Six-feet social distancing rules that inadvertently result in closed businesses and schools are “just not reasonable,” according to Bazant.
As for social distancing outdoors, Bazant says it makes almost no sense and that doing so with masks on is “kind of crazy.”
“If you look at the air flow outside, the infected air would be swept away and very unlikely to cause transmission. There are very few recorded instances of outdoor transmission.” he said. “Crowded spaces outdoor could be an issue, but if people are keeping a reasonable distance of like 3 feet outside, I feel pretty comfortable with that even without masks frankly.”
Bazant says this could possibly explain why there haven’t been spikes in transmission in states like Texas or Florida that have reopened businesses without capacity limits.