Sobering study reveals how much alcohol reduces social distancing

20 May 2021 - 12:07
By sanet oberholzer AND Sanet Oberholzer
The likelihood of maintaining a Covid-19 acceptable social distance from strangers is reduced when you’ve been drinking, reports a new study.
Image: 123RF/Cathy Yeulet The likelihood of maintaining a Covid-19 acceptable social distance from strangers is reduced when you’ve been drinking, reports a new study.

This should come as no surprise: when people drink, social distancing tends to fly out the window.

If you’ve had your doubts, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Pittsburgh has found conclusive proof.

The study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month was conducted as an answer to the lack of evidence on alcohol’s effects on social distancing.

“Of the restrictions enacted during Covid-19, among the more controversial surround alcohol,” the researchers wrote. 

“Like many infectious diseases, the principal mode of transmission for Covid-19 is direct respiration of droplets emitted during close social contact, and health officials warn that alcohol consumption may lead to decreased adherence to physical distancing guidelines.”

This has led to the closure of bars and restaurants and restrictions on alcohol sales in various parts of the world — something we in SA have become very accustomed to. In response, industry players have labelled these measures as “unfounded” and “discriminatory”. 

To arrive at their findings, the researchers studied more than 200 young people in different social situations in a laboratory setting. Participants were either given nonalcoholic or alcoholic beverages (enough to make them intoxicated) to drink and half the participants were partnered with a friend while the other half were partnered with a stranger.

The researchers found that friends tended to draw close to one another regardless of the beverage they consumed — alcoholic or nonalcoholic — while participants who were partnered with a stranger only drew closer if they were intoxicated. The strangers who were paired up and drinking nonalcoholic beverages did not draw significantly closer to one another.

What’s more, the findings indicate that the physical distance between strangers who were intoxicated decreased by about 1cm every three minutes. 


The World Health Organization's website advises that you maintain "at least a 1m distance between yourself and others" to help curb the spread of Covid-19.

As part of their findings, the researchers suggest that alcohol might assist people in overcoming the natural caution they feel towards strangers — an undesirable outcome when it comes to limiting Covid-19 infections in a social setting.

“At a time of increased isolation and monotony, and a resultant yearning for a sense of community and novelty offered by drinking environments, these findings offer a sobering piece of evidence to consider in developing public health policy,” wrote the researchers.