When petty neighbors become the social distancing police.

A man stands inside a house in front of the window, peeking out of the closed blinds
“That does not look like 6 feet.” lolostock/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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“If there are kids outside, getting more than adequate exercise time, and basically goofing around,” a concerned Nextdoor user in Cherry Hill Village, Michigan, asked in a recent post on the hyperlocal social network, “is there something that can be done?”

Meanwhile in Schuylkill Banks, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, others struck a firmer tone: “6 FEET PEOPLE!!!! WALKERS!!!!! JOGGERS!!!! RUNNERS!!!! BIKERS!!!! 6 FEET APART!!!!”

You’ve seen these people—if not on Nextdoor, in your local Facebook group. Or maybe one has caught you in the wild on a rare trip outside to reprimand you for not staying home, for being too close to other people (in their estimation), for doing quarantine wrong. That’s if you’re not the one doing the scolding. And there is certainly reasonable scolding to do—someone who steps right up next to you at a street corner, maybe, or doesn’t wait for you to move on from the lettuce at the grocery store. It’s fair to remind people of the rules. But as we settle in for the long haul of self-isolating to fight the coronavirus outbreak, neighborhood busybodies are also feeling empowered, and now they’re a whole new species—they’ve got science on their side. And, possibly, it’s sort of unclear, the government? Is there something that can be done?

By the New York Times’ count, three out of four Americans are now or will soon be being urged by their state or local government to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This is essential and nonnegotiable—but in almost every case, the same instructions that advise residents not to go out also tell them that they’re allowed to leave home to do things like get groceries or take a walk. So questions abound: If you briefly come within 6 feet of someone to pass them on a sidewalk during a walk or a run, is that OK? Where’s the line between getting a little exercise and continuing to do the same lengthy, perhaps less justifiable runs through the park that you did before the outbreak? Is it OK to socialize with others for more than a few minutes as long as you’re standing 6 feet apart? If gatherings of more than five or 10 people are banned in some states, does that mean it’s cool for four or nine people to hang out? In the absence of clear mandates in many instances, there’s ample room for the self-appointed social distance police to swoop in.

Both of the aforementioned Nextdoor posts came from the inbox of Jenn Takahashi, the proprietor of the Twitter account @BestofNextdoor, who then shared them with Slate. User-generated submissions to the account have tripled in recent weeks, Takahashi said, while Nextdoor itself has indicated that engagement has almost doubled. “Because people are at home more, they literally are looking out the window a lot,” Takahashi said. More time looking out the window tends to result in more opportunities to be a buttinsky. Some observers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, have noted that the crisis seems to have transformed Nextdoor into a friendlier place than it used to be. Judging by Takahashi’s submissions, though, even with the uptick in kindness, pettiness and negativity still thrive on the platform. “I wish I could say everything was warm and fuzzy, but that would be lying,” Takahashi said. It’s not so much that people are being better or worse than usual; it’s more that human nature is to judge and police others, and so this persists even—especially?—in times of crisis.

Dannika Andersen, a 22-year-old living in the suburbs of Chicago, said she has seen these debates play out in one of her community’s local Facebook groups. “It’s very passive-aggressive,” Andersen said. “Some people are very much saying, ‘Good on you for calling this out.’ Other people are like, ‘Mind your own business.’ ”

She shared a few representative posts from the group with Slate. One began, “To the man who yelled at us on the bike path. Aren’t we having enough stress already?” Below it, a user responded, “For all you people waking and riding bikes!! $500 tickets or arrests good luck! Stay home please.” Another post on the page, which read, “Seriously people stop being narcs. Just worry about you and your family,” prompted 196 comments. Some samples: “It is that kind of selfish thinking that will prolong this pandemic.” “Stay inside and there is no problem dumbass.”

The conversations on a Montclair, New Jersey, Facebook group are just as contentious. One recent thread centered on why a police officer wasn’t keeping people out of one of the town’s parks. An incensed user wrote, “[H]e said, people need their exercise and you have to walk the dogs. This was said to me by the police. If the Governor says stay home and the parks are closed then shouldn’t they be enforcing this??” The responses were all over the place: “Sickening isn’t it?” one user agreed, adding, “It isn’t a suggestion to avoid the parks…they are f’n closed!!!” Another user wrote, “Everyone should call the police station and complain, they are putting lives are risk!” But others thought this was an overreaction: “As long as everyone keeps a safe social distance walking or running through the park isn’t prohibited.” Some put it more sarcastically: “I can’t believe we have misunderstood the park as a place to walk. Amazing.” Whether people can be trusted to go to the park has never before seemed like such a complicated question.

This has caused official problems. While some states, like New Jersey, set up phone numbers for citizens to report violations of the orders that all nonessential businesses close (and were reportedly jammed with calls), in others, like Michigan, law enforcement has had to plead with the public not to call 911 to call attention to others who were flouting the stay-at-home rule. There is talk of fines, but it’s unclear how stringent enforcement has been or can be.

Hannah Murray, a writer in Washington (that’s her pen name), found herself in a dilemma over whether to report a neighbor last week when she noticed a crew working at one of the houses on her street, where they appeared to be pouring cement to replace a driveway. It certainly looked nonessential to her. “First I asked my husband,” Murray said. “I said, ‘I’m thinking of calling the sheriff’s department because of what’s happening across the street.’ He goes, ‘That’s not really any of our business, is it?’ And I said, ‘We’re in the middle of a public health crisis, it kind of is.’ We debated it for a little while. He wasn’t really comfortable with me calling the police, and I wasn’t really comfortable with me calling the police.”

She decided to search online to see if the state had issued any specific rules regarding construction. She found the document with the shelter-in-place order, read the whole thing, and still didn’t know what to do. By then, enough time had passed that the crew was gone. “I don’t actually know what I would have done had I had all the information I needed to make a decision and the construction crew was still there,” she said.

“I would under normal circumstances never consider calling the police on a neighbor. It’s the last thing you want to do, but these are not normal circumstances.”

Murray said she’s noticed other people taking to social media with comparable predicaments. “It’s mostly people who are frustrated, who feel like the regulations and the rules that are currently in place are hard but necessary, and they’re doing their best to follow those hard and necessary rules. It’s very frustrating to see the person next to you not giving a shit.”