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11 Photos That Show Social Distancing in America Compared to Other Countries

How are we doing staying six feet away and wearing masks compared to the rest of the world? It depends.

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a US boat and a Canadian boat at Niagara FallsChina News Service/Getty Images

U.S. vs. the world

As towns, cities, and countries have started emerging from shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, there have been governments urging caution, and governments throwing caution to the wind. This has resulted in a fair amount of chaos when it comes to people’s decisions about whether or not to follow the World Health Organization’s advice for staying safe—mainly, washing hands, wearing a mask in public, and maintaining social distancing. Nowhere has this been more in evidence than in the United States, where each state and sometimes, individual municipalities, have created their own guidelines (or not). How are we doing with social distancing compared to the rest of the world? As the photo of the Canadian tour boat with passengers wearing red next to the American one at Niagara Falls shows, not very well. These 20 photos will define the era of social distancing.

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On the road

The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota that kicked off on August 7 drew an estimated 250,000 mostly unmasked motorcycle riders from around the world. Meanwhile, in Bandung, Indonesia, motorcycle riders are encouraged to maintain a safe distance from one another at stoplights with boxes painted on the road. The entire country of Indonesia had marked over 3,700 deaths due to COVID-19 by mid-July, compared to the U.S.’s 160,000 and counting. Take a look at what the 12 smoggiest cities look like after COVID-19 quarantine.

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Summer holidays

The U.S. celebrated Independence Day on July 4 and although many Americans were still following the recommendations of epidemiologists and other medical professionals to avoid crowds and stay masked, the Salute to America celebration hosted by the White House seemed to fly in the face of experts’ precautions. By contrast, France’s celebration of its own independence on Bastille Day, on July 14, was greatly reduced. Instead of parades and gatherings, it featured an homage to health workers and a fly-over of the Louvre museum that could still be witnessed by those sheltering in place.

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In June, New York City—which was the original epicenter for the novel coronavirus in the U.S.—allowed restaurants and bars to open for outdoor dining, as long as patrons remained socially distant and staff wore masks and followed other hygiene protocols. Tables and chairs were set up on sidewalks and in the street. Shown, the scene on Smith Street in Brooklyn, a familiar, crowded, sight to evening strollers across the city. Meanwhile, at a cafe in Paris, patrons are seen wearing face shields, facing in the same direction, and spaced further apart. Be proactive about protecting yourself and avoid doing any of these 13 things at reopened restaurants.

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Public transportation

New York City can boast the largest public transportation system in North America, and it’s essential to life there, granting 5.5 million people daily an affordable way to get around the city. The need didn’t come to an end with COVID-19—essential workers still had places they needed to be every single day. But the scene underground on the subway has been largely subdued (ridership, unsurprisingly, is down), with riders wearing masks and social distancing where possible—although the details have been left up to the riders themselves. In Bangkok, Thailand, train seats were marked so that riders were safely spaced.

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Florida didn’t bother to shut down all beaches for COVID-19 back in March, instead choosing to welcome thousands of young Spring Break revelers to its beaches; by early April, it had 17,500 cases of the disease, with 400 deaths. Some folks did learn their lesson (albeit, possibly, the hard way). Shown at Cocoa Beach on July 4, visitors were way down and those who chose to frolic in the sand and surf appeared to make some attempt at keeping socially distanced. By contrast, certain regions of France mandated mask-wearing, including popular beach destinations Biarritz on the Basque coast. Wherever you are in the world, don’t do these 12 things at re-opened beaches.

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Does this look like a nightmare in the making? It’s Los Angeles’s Santee Alley garment district at the end of June. Although mask-wearing was mandated for anyone turning out to browse the stalls and shops and distancing was advised, the rules were hard to enforce—even as Los Angeles County continued to see spikes in cases into July and beyond. To stay safe in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, with or without government advisories, shopkeepers have gotten creative, often using sticks to hand over both purchased items and change to customers. If you spy any of these 10 signs a store isn’t protecting itself (or you) from coronavirus, take your business elsewhere.

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Train travel

Having suffered the worst of the pandemic at its very beginning here in the states, New York instituted, and maintained, stringent policies for keeping people safe—policies many New York City residents have been diligent in following. Seen here in early August, travelers at Penn Station awaiting boarding are almost all wearing masks and observing physical distancing, even as Phase 4 reopening has allowed for expanded freedoms. A similar scene on a much smaller scale was played out at London’s King Cross Station in late July, where a government mandate to wear masks on public transportation seemed to be largely observed. Here are just a few everyday habits could change forever due to coronavirus, and maybe they should.

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At Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco—seen here over Memorial Day weekend—park-goers seemed serious about maintaining social distance, remaining (mostly) within the 8-foot-in-diameter circles drawn in the grass to keep them 10 feet apart. In Berlin, Germany a month earlier in April, though, no circles were needed to convince park patrons to stay in their own little bubbles. Before you head out, find out the 12 things you shouldn’t do in re-opened national parks.

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Places of worship

Whether or not to reopen churches, synagogues, and mosques was a contentious topic in some locales. A number of churches in places like Houston, Arkansas, and Georgia reopened quickly while the pandemic still raged—only to have to shut again as parishioners became ill and in some cases died. Cooler heads eventually prevailed in Massachusetts. Parishioners at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Milford, Massachusetts wear masks and sit distanced from each other—enforced by rope-off pews. A similar scene unfolds in Gowa, Indonesia, where worshipers are guided in where to lay their prayer mats by a series of X’s taped out on the floor. Here are just a few true stories that show what happens when you don’t social distanceincluding at churches.

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Luckily for barbers and their shaggy-headed customers, cutting hair is a relatively flexible affair that can be conducted outdoors (almost) as easily as indoors. In early August, barbers at Grey Matter, a salon in Los Angeles, took their chairs out to the street and spaced them far apart. Barbers in Ankara, Turkey were open for business in early May but similarly, they sought to maintain social distancing protocols. Although trims were taking place indoors at this local shop, taped-off chairs served as a barrier to getting too close. Still, you’ll want to know the signs a reopened hair salon isn’t safe to visit.

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There was a significant amount of fear back in May that the protests spurred by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others would lead to an upsurge in COVID-19 cases, as Black Lives Matter activists and their allies spilled into the streets around the world. However, that uptick fortunately never came. Epidemiologists postulated that the reasons likely had to do with the fact that many protesters were masked and they were also outdoors, where spread is less likely. The scenes were similar everywhere you looked (until police violence erupted in some places). Seen here, protesters on the ground in Portland and in London. Next, here are 21 powerful protest photos that show global solidarity against racial injustice.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.