Public Health Experts: We Do Not Need 6 Feet of Social Distancing in the Polling Booths

            In-person voting is going to remain critical this fall – far moreso than is widely recognized currently.  Yet as of now, many election officials are assuming they must ensure 6 feet of social distance between the actual polling booths; CDC Guidelines appear to recommend that measure.  That would have significant effects on in-person voting; it would reduce the capacity of many polling sites by one-third.  That could lead to longer lines, deterring some from voting; the need to abandon some traditional polling locations and replace them with larger venues farther from people’s residences, which can increase voter confusion, as well as the time and expense of voting.

            Drs. William Hanage, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Anabelle De St Maurice, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, are two of the country’s leading public-health experts. Together we have published an essay, in Politico Magazine, which suggests that – as a matter of public health—we do not need 6 feet of social distancing at the polls.  Indeed, imposing such a requirement could increase health risks overall, if it leads to longer lines or the need to use public transportation to get to more distant polling sites.  We urge the CDC to re-consider, or clarify, whether the familiar 6 feet of social distance is needed at the polling booths.  As noted, this issue has much greater significance for ensuring robust in-person voting capacity than one might think.

Here is an excerpt:

The reasons for appropriate social distance in places like schools, workplaces and religious institutions are well understood. But voting in the polling booth is different. While casting their ballots, voters spend only a few minutes next to each other; in 2016, the average time was about five minutes. Voters don’t usually talk to each other, which reduces the risk of droplet transmission. They don’t face each other, but rather face forward nearly the entire time. Some booths have 6-foot high curtain dividers; other places are installing plexiglass dividers between booths (though this is expensive).

Researchers and public health officials believe that viral transmission is strongly linked to how long someone is exposed to an infected person, whether the infected individual is wearing a mask, and whether or not the infected individual is likely to generate infectious droplets through coughing or sneezing. The CDC itself recognizes that the duration of exposure to an infected person is a critical factor in whether the exposure is low-risk or high-risk, as do European health agencies and independent scientists. Public-health officials do contact tracing only of those within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more. Few voters spend anywhere near that long at a polling booth. Voting alongside others does not meet the CDC’s own definition of a close contact.

Other measures can be taken to mitigate against exposure at the voting booth. A significant percentage of voters this fall will be wearing masks. For voters who do not wear masks, distinct polling booths could be set up that, just for those voters, ensures 6 feet of distance between them. And we urge that all polling sites be adequately ventilated.

It is unlikely that CDC officials, when issuing these guidelines, focused on how dramatically the distancing recommendation could affect the capacity for in-person voting. That is not the CDC’s mission, nor does the CDC have expertise in how waiting time affects voter participation, or how moving polling sites creates voter confusion, or how critical in-person voting will be to a successful election this fall.

The most dangerous scenario this fall, if the election is close, is if millions of ballots in key states cannot be counted until well after Election Night. If the outcome turns on that, the situation could quickly get explosive. The best way to avoid that situation is for people to vote in person or, if they vote absentee, to vote early. Election officials right now are making plans for polling sites based on the assumption that polling booths will have to reflect 6 feet of distance between voters. That policy threatens the capacity we need for in-person voting. We ask the CDC to reconsider or clarify whether that is truly necessary.

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