Maintaining adequate social distance from strangers -- a key COVID-19 preventive measure -- can be tough when you're drinking alcohol, researchers say.
In a new study, the researchers put more than 200 young social drinkers in different social situations in laboratory settings. They drank either alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages.
In half of the cases, participants drank with a friend, said research leader Catharine Fairbairn, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The other half drank with a stranger.
Those who had alcoholic beverages were given enough to make them intoxicated.
Friends tended to draw close to one another whether or not they consumed alcohol, but "participants interacting with a stranger only moved closer to that individual if they were intoxicated. The physical distance between these pairs decreased by about 1 centimeter [nearly half an inch] per three-minute interval," Fairbairn said in a university news release.
Those who drank nonalcoholic beverages with strangers did not draw significantly closer to one another, the researchers noted.
According to study lead author Laura Gurrieri, a psychology researcher at the university, "This study shows that over time, alcohol reduces physical distance between people who are not previously acquainted. This finding is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because it suggests that alcohol might facilitate virus transmission and impede the following of social distancing guidelines."
The study participants' ability to move closer to one another was somewhat limited because they sat across from one another at a table, and the study was conducted in a quiet, spacious laboratory and not a bar, Fairbairn said.
"Folks would likely draw even closer to one another in a crowded bar with loud music when compared with our laboratory environment," she said. "That would have to be the subject of another study."
The report was published May 10 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To prevent COVID-19 transmission, it's recommended that you stay 6-feet apart from people who don't live with you.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on social distancing.
SOURCE: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, news release, May 10, 2021