Alcohol Impairs Social Distancing


By Megan Finnegan


As the United States slowly emerges from the restrictions of the pandemic, no doubt the concept of social distancing will linger in the American psyche. However, new research by Laura Gurrieri and Professor Catharine Fairbairn from the Alcohol Research Lab shows that alcohol intoxication can impair a person's ability to remain physically distant from strangers. The work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that intoxication caused two strangers to move closer to each other over the course of a conversation.

The researchers hypothesized alcohol may inhibit the initial sense of caution people can experience when meeting someone new and promote proximity seeking with strangers. The reduced social distance has implications for disease spread and could promote the transmission of respiratory diseases like COVID-19 across social groups. Controversial policies limiting alcohol sales such as adding additional restrictions and early closures for venues that sell alcohol have been a central tool in pandemic control measures in the US (for example, Chicago imposed an alcohol curfew) and abroad (for example, South Africa banned alcohol sales entirely during lockdown). Early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended restricting access to alcohol over concerns it increase the spread of coronavirus (and worsen symptoms for individuals).

These new research findings enable epidemiologists and policy makers to pinpoint specific mechanisms for disease transfer in places where alcohol is consumed. Governments may be able to use this to make more targeted and informed decisions to curb the spread of current and future disease outbreaks.

You can read more about this research at the Illinois News Bureau.


This research was reported in:

Gurrieri, L., Fairbairn, C. E., Sayette, M. A., & Bosch, N. (2021). Alcohol narrows physical distance between strangers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences118(20). doi: 10.1073/pnas.2101937118