Yesterday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all New Yorkers should start wearing masks, or what he is calling "face coverings," when they venture outside. He explained this was particularly important so that asymptomatic people don't inadvertently spread coronavirus further. During the press conference, he and Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot were asked whether runners should be wearing these coverings as well. "It's not so much the time [outside] as the physical space," Barbot said. "To answer the question about whether someone should wear a face covering during exercising, the recommendation would be that if they can keep six feet of distance between themselves and everyone else, there's no need to wear a face covering."
That's good news—having to wear a face covering would almost certainly be a major impediment to running. But that doesn't mean that runners throughout the city couldn't stand to be a little more thoughtful and careful about where they're running during this crisis, and some of their less hygienic habits. Because that all-important six foot rule still applies, even when you're briskly jogging past someone else.
Getting exercise and being able to go outside in the city right now is without a doubt helpful to New Yorkers, both for their physical health and emotional well-being. It's believed that "getting in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to brisk activity can help your immune system keep viruses at bay," and that people who exercise are generally less likely to get sick with these types of infections than people who aren’t active (the exception to that: people who are overtraining or who have just completed a race).
There has been an ongoing debate about whether parks and playgrounds, where people tend to cluster and play contact sports, should be closed down—Governor Andrew Cuomo finally shut down all the playgrounds in the city, which are not cleaned regularly, this week. Outside of that and encouraging people to keep physical distance from each other, there's been no attempt by city officials or health experts at curbing people's desire to go running outside otherwise. An expert no less than Dr. Anthony Fauci has said running right now is "not only safe, it’s healthy.”
But what has been a problem in the city is runners getting too close to one another, and to people who are just walking around outside, both on sidewalks and in parks.
One person recently wrote Gothamist, "please write about the new manspreading—people jogging on narrow sidewalks with barely a foot between them and pedestrians just trying to carefully get their groceries. Especially racing up behind people." Several Gothamist and WNYC staffers have reported runners brushing past them in different parts of NYC.
One Downtown Brooklyn resident wrote, "I've experienced joggers on the sidewalks running by without giving an inch of room...runners are regularly panting and heaving, breathing into my face because they don't want to break their stride to move aside one foot, even if I don't have anymore room to move. One guy tonight literally ran up behind me breathing down my neck because he couldn't get past me fast enough in a covered construction shed." A DUMBO resident added, "It's preventing me from going for a walk, which is necessary for mental health."
Sidewalk etiquette isn't just an issue in NYC, either—it's something runners in cities around the country are dealing with. An Australian doctor has urged locals to “steer clear” of runners entirely. A British woman has started painting lines on the street near her house to to encourage runners to avoid the pavement. And out of an abundance of caution, some parts of Italy have fully stopped jogging and biking as an extra precaution:
But there is no exact consensus about how dangerous having someone running by you is.Last week, Stephen Morse, Professor of Epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said that if someone passes you within a few feet, instead of six, "The risk is going to increase if someone has the infection, and with the amount of time you may be near them... if they're coughing or sneezing in your direction and are infected and you are close, then you have a better chance of getting infected. People who are just walking or running by, the chances are if they are not coughing or sneezing at that moment you have a very low likelihood of getting infected." He added: "Nothing is ever completely without risk."
However, Jose Jimenez, a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado specializing in aerosol science, told Twin Cities Pioneer Press this week that he has been recommending to people to keep at least 25 feet from anyone outdoors. “The best analogy is when someone is smoking tobacco or marijuana,” Jimenez said. “Think about how many times you have walked by people and smelled tobacco or pot smoke that someone else had exhaled. Often, those people were farther [away] than [six feet].”
“If that happens, we are inhaling the contents of someone’s lungs with limited dilution," he continued. "Then we could inhale enough viruses to get sick, if the person exhaling the air was sick. Therefore, the [six-foot] rule, while useful, is not enough. We have to imagine that everyone we cross paths with is smoking, and we want to make sure that we never smell their smoke. So we want to keep larger distances, especially indoors or with light winds, or if they are upwind of us.”
On top of that, he said runners should be especially cautious to protect other people: “Imagine that they are smoking four cigarettes, and doing so really quickly. So I would keep even larger distances,” Jimenez said. “Joggers should be proactive and keep really large distances — 25 feet or more — from anyone they cross paths with.”
Health experts are still working out exactly how asymptomatic transmission works, and how infectious people without symptoms are—this week, a new report suggested the virus could be spread by breathing. This follows the case of the Skagit Valley Chorale, whose members have been ravaged by COVID-19 following a rehearsal.
As for the hygienic aspect: some runners have a tendency to spit and clear their runny noses as they go. “Please, make the message: Try not to spit. If you have to, move to a less-traveled part of your route such as off the road in the grass," Dr. Maria Khan, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor in the department of population health at NYU Langone, told the Daily News. “Keeping your fluids to yourself is going to be important if there are people around," she said. “We should be on the side of being very conservative and not coughing or spitting when running near others. That’s the party line.”
One option to relieve pedestrian congestion is to open more streets, instead of a few meager blocks in four boroughs. Another is to do what Italy did: ban running altogether. Until then, our gentle advice is this: don't run in groups. Don't run near other people. Don't be precious about changing up your routine: if a park seems especially busy, run in less crowded areas. And if worse comes to worse, you could always take inspiration from this British man who ran a marathon in his 20-foot backyard.