Tales from the pandumbic – part 8

Fools and their social distance are soon parted

I’ve just nipped to the shop to get some bread and a few other bits and pieces, and having gone around the store and picked up what I wanted, I headed for the checkout area. I reached the checkouts, and stopped at the appropriate line marking, just as someone else arrived ahead of me from another aisle. He went straight up to the belt and began unloading his shopping from the basket.

That all sounds fine so far, doesn’t it?

I’m going to call that man ‘Person2’ . This might indicate that it wasn’t as fine as it might have at first sounded – because if he was Person2, who (and where) was Person1?

The answer to that question is that Person1 was another shopper, who was already unloading his basket at the same till – and by walking straight up and unloading his shopping, Person2 was much closer than two metres from Person1. It was hard to be certain from where I was standing due to the angle, but I’d say it was a couple of feet.


Person1 immediately – and quite correctly – pointed out to Person2 that he should have been two metres back.

Person2 then indicated the line on the floor and pointed out that he was behind it.

The problem is the length of the belts for the tills – from before the pandemic ever started. I’m not sure how long they are, but I’d guess (including the till section itself) probably over two metres, and closer to two and a half at least. This, with the ‘next customer’ signs for people to place on the belt after their own shopping, allowed multiple people to have shopping on the belt at once. Which was fine before the pandemic.

To address the need for maintaining a two metre distance, therefore, the first floor markings are at the opposite end of the belts from the tills. When one customer is paying and/or loading their shopping into their shopping bags, the next person can be at the first floor marking – at the opposite end of the belt – unloading their shopping onto it.

Person2, therefore, was indeed behind the line, while also being just a couple of feet from Person1. He was, technically, correct; the instructions say to remain behind the line – and that’s where he was. However, he was clearly missing the point somewhat, and so was displaying a distinct lack of common sense. While Person1 was so close to the line on the other side, Person2 should have waited further back – ideally behind the next marker.

Needless to say, there were a couple of minutes where these two people were arguing – a couple of feet from one another, voices raised. All that extra momentum on their breath, carrying their droplets a little bit further than they would if they were just talking ordinarily.

You can see how this works for yourself. When we breathe out, our breath carries droplets – regardless of whether or not we are infected. Take a CD or DVD, and hold it an inch or so from your mouth, and breathe on it; notice how it mists up? Droplets. Now hold your hand alone in front of your mouth, again about an inch, say something, and feel the breath on your hand – and then, with your hand still there, shout something. Feel the difference?

If one of those two men was infected and was asymptomatic, so didn’t realise, the chances are the other one would now have a good dose of the virus working its way down towards his lungs.

The initial argument ended with Person1 moving forwards slightly to finish unloading his basket onto the belt. Person2 hadn’t relented, and was still stood at the end, and also finished unloading his.

The stack of used baskets is at this end of the belt; people usually unload at the end, add their basket to that stack, and then gradually move forwards with their shopping – before the pandemic. In principle, it still works that way – it’s just that now there is never more than one person at the till end and one at the other end putting their shopping on the belt, and able to put their basket straight on the stack.

My own approach is to put my basket on the stack before putting its contents on the end of the belt. Amongst other things, this means I am at the line – not beyond it – when unloading. Although this isn’t the reason (it had never occurred to me that someone would be so daft until seeing it for myself tonight), it does mean there’s no way for the next person to unload while I’m doing so.

To put his basket on the stack, Person1 needed to pass Person2, who refused to move back so that he could do so while keeping his distance.

Person1 then asked Person2 if he would put the basket on the stack for him – which he refused to do. I’m not sure if he refused because he was simply being obstinate and didn’t want to be helpful to Person1, or if it was because of the risk inherent in touching something that someone else had just been handling. Either way, there was another mini-argument.

If Person2’s reason was the latter, to avoid the risk of infection, I’m not sure how much more risky touching the basket would have been than standing a couple of feet from one another and arguing, and probably spraying one another with the droplets carried on their breath.

The resolution was provided by the security guard, who came over, walked up the passage between the tills, took the basket from Person1, walked past him and then past Person2, to put the basket on the stack and then walk past them both again to get to the front of the store where he was at the start. Neither of them objected to that.

But two metres? No chance of even being as far as two feet from either as he squeezed past them.

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