Social distancing has stabilized, but failed to reverse, the spread of COVID-19

May. 12, 2020
social distancing

As policymakers try to restart the economy but also control COVID-19, data scientists at Cornell University and the University of Rochester are studying the impacts of social distancing. While social distancing has effectively slowed the rate at which COVID-19, the measures have not caused the total number of daily new cases to decrease significantly since social distancing was imposed.

“The effect is not as large as one would have hoped for going in,” says lead author Aaron Wagner, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University. As a result, he says, the states now reopening businesses and relaxing restrictions “do not have much headroom” for error. “You’re right on the edge of it starting to blow up again.”

“Policy makers need to be aware of this,” says co-author Elaine Hill, assistant professor of public health sciences at the University of Rochester. “We need more studies to identify the practices that can move us to a place where COVID-19 is actually contracting.”

The study authors suggest that policymakers:


  • Consider a carefully phased relaxation of social distancing, such as first targeting a limited number of businesses and economic activities where duration of human contact is limited: restaurants offering take-out meals, for example, rather than in-restaurant dining; or construction activity where it might be easier to maintain social distancing between workers.
  • Allow enough time for models like the one used in this study to assess the effect of the targeted relaxations before extending them to other areas.
  • Consider augmenting social distancing with other practices, such as universal use of face masks, or contact tracing.

Learn more in the University of Rochester Newscenter.