How social distancing is taking hold in Switzerland

Unlike other countries, playgrounds and parks in Switzerland remain open, although children can play only in small groups and parents must keep a safe distance from each other. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

What began as a recommendation to avoid handshakes and kisses on cheeks has now turned into a measure urging residents to stay at home as much as possible. As the country combats the novel coronavirus outbreak, its more than 8 million residents are gradually coming to terms with restrictive new social norms. 

This content was published on March 23, 2020 - 17:32
With input from Jo Fahy

The latest "social distancing" measures imposed by the government are meant to reduce the number of contacts between individuals dramatically and thus slow the spread of the virus.

The government in Bern, like many other countries around the world, has asked residents to stay at home as much as possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others. 

While the rogue handshake will likely be brushed off, a new regulation that entered into force on March 16 foresees strict punishment for violations of the ban on large gatherings of up to three years’ imprisonment, although fines are much more likely. 

Social distancing could break the exponential spread of the virus in the population and prevent a collapse of the healthcare system. According to Alain Berset, the country’s interior minister responsible for health matters, social distancing “is the best way to slow the spread of the virus.”

Can the Swiss still leave their homes? 

Yes, but they are advised to do so only if they have to go to work, do groceries, see the doctor, walk the dog or help another person. People aged 65 or older should not be going to the supermarket and instead should seek help with grocery shopping, the head of infectious diseases at the Federal Office of Public Health, Daniel Koch, said at a press conference.

Going out for some fresh air is also possible, so long as people go on their own or with family members from the same household, Koch told Swiss public broadcaster SRF.

In many ways, there are just fewer reasons to leave home. All restaurants, bars, museums, cinemas, ski pistes, swimming pools and businesses that require close contact between personnel and customers – hair salons, for example – are to remain closed until April 19. Schools are also closed. 

Businesses have been instructed to allow their staff to work from home if that is possible. Struggling companies can ask the government for permission to give their staff part-time unemployment benefits. 

Neighbouring countries have much stricter rules curbing social interactions. In France, residents need to be able to show a document that attests to their reasons for leaving their homes. 

Italians are only allowed to go shopping individually. There, police can send people back home if they’re not convinced that the reason for leaving it is reasonable. 

Are the Swiss still allowed to meet others socially? 

Yes, but all unnecessary social contact must be avoided. The government has banned all public and private events. It has also banned gatherings of five people or more in public places until April 19. Those who violate this ban face fines of CHF100 (around $101). Cities like Bern and Zurich have closed off some public spaces, such as parks, to discourage people from congregating.

However, it’s still possible to invite a few friends over for dinner, the public health office says on its website, so long as everyone keeps a distance of two metres and follows good hygiene (washing hands thoroughly and coughing into the elbow). But it advises against private parties, including invitations to children’s birthday celebrations. 

With schools closed, children looking for playmates can meet in small groups of up to five kids. The government has asked crèches or alternative childcare facilities to remain open, but these are also bound to follow the same guidelines on group sizes. 

Playgrounds and parks remain open, unlike in other countries, although some municipalities have closed theirs. Organised playgroups are not allowed and parents must keep their distance from each other.

The elderly and those with certain medical conditions have been told to avoid all contact with children.  

Outings to restaurants and cafes are no longer possible because they've been ordered closed at least until April. Hotels have been ordered to drastically reduce the number of guests, who are nevertheless allowed to frequent hotel restaurants. 

The ban on larger gatherings is being increasingly enforced by police. Associations and sports teams can no longer convene.

Can the Swiss still take public transport?

Yes, although the general advice from public health authorities is to avoid it if possible, since travelling on buses and trains can prevent riders from keeping physical distance between each other. 

The Federal Office of Public Health is encouraging people to walk or bicycle to work instead. National train services and several local transport networks have been significantly reduced.  Those 65 or older and people showing flu-like symptoms must avoid public transport altogether. 

What's the point of social distancing? 

"The aim [is] to stop any event where larger groups of people gather in enclosed settings at relatively high density," writes Benjamin J. Cowling, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, who co-authored an upcoming paper on the effectiveness of social distancing during influenza pandemics.

If people end up interacting closely with five people instead of the usual ten on a typical day – on public transport, at the office or in a restaurant – then "it should have a big effect in reducing the opportunities for transmission to occur," Cowling explains to swissinfo.ch.

Cowling and his co-authors argue that authorities deploy social distancing measures with three goals in mind: delay the peak of infections so they can prepare the healthcare system to cope with severe cases; reduce the size of the peak; and spread infections over a more extended period, to allow better management of cases and potential use of vaccines later in the epidemic.

Social distancing, however, “may not have much effect on transmission unless they lead to major changes in behaviour,” Cowling warns.

A new report from Imperial College London suggests that if social distancing is applied to the entire population in combination with other measures, like isolation of the infected and school closures, then it has the potential to rapidly reduce the number of new cases.

How is social distancing being enforced?

Across the country, shops that can stay open are gradually taking measures to limit the number of customers. Posters and announcements call on shoppers and commuters to keep a safe distance from each other. Cordons have even been set up at the front of buses and trams to maintain distance between drivers and passengers.

The Federal Council imposed fines and imprisonment of up to three years for violations of its set of measures to curb the spread of the virus. Police in several cantons have already issued fines for violations of the ban on public gatherings of more than five people. The city of Geneva alone handed out over 30 fines during the weekend the ban took effect, public broadcaster RTS reported. 

The military is assisting the police in the enforcement, but Viola Amherd, the minister of defence, stressed that troops are performing a supporting role to law enforcement. 

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