The problem hit me on a foggy day last week while running in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The temperature and humidity were in such a place that you could easily see your breath — or, more accurately for my mask-wearing self, see other people’s breath. I was cruising about twenty feet behind three staggered runners who were huffing up a hill, each carefully distanced from each other by about six feet. I watched from behind as their breath swirled, slo-mo curled, and then, like a horror movie, hung in the air, a curtain of breath-made mist that I proceeded to run through. This, in the time of coronavirus spread, is a problem.
Running shouldn’t stop — it is good for the mind and most of the body and exercise is a mood stabilizer. What needs to stop is business-as-usual running. We’re under threat from a fast-spreading respiratory disease. More specifically, members of the non-running community — people with respiratory and heart conditions, the overweight, and the aged — are at profound risk. Runners need to recognize that their hobby is less important than the health of others. Do masks make breathing hard, noses runny, and the experience of a 5K less pleasant? Yes. They also may help save lives. The moral arithmetic here is pretty simple.
You may have picked up on that “may” in there. Yes, there are doubts. If you’re one of the folks in running group emails or in story comments or on “Running Twitter ,” you’d probably like me to dwell on the scientific unknowns over the novel coronavirus spreading from runners.
Plenty of experts will be quick to dismiss the idea of runners running without masks as a major vector of the disease. Though runners are never going to be statistically significant vector, they could so some real damage in city parks and suburban cul de sacs. Live rural? You’re probably fine. But Americans running mask-free in relatively densely populated areas are putting others at risk.
Anyone who takes that as evidence that they can run unimpeded would do well to read Roxanne Khamsi’s eye-opening, mouth-closing story, “They Say Coronavirus Isn’t Airborne — But It’s Definitely Borne By Air”, which puts a bow on the thing. “When health officials say the pathogen isn’t ‘airborne,’ they’re relying on a narrow definition of the term, and one that’s been disputed by some leading scholars of viral transmission through the air,” writes Khamsi. If these scholars’ fears bear out — if the new coronavirus does, in fact, have the potential to travel farther through the air than officials have been saying — then we might need to reevaluate our standards for protecting healthcare workers at the front lines of fighting COVID-19. In fact, we might need to make some tweaks to all our public-health advice.”
Here’s something else to consider: In late March, a choir in Washington State decided to hold a social distancing rehearsal. In one room 60 choir members kept their distance and sang. Shortly thereafter, 45 of the members tested positive for COVID-19. Is singing in an enclosed space the same as running outdoors? It is not, but breathing isn’t just breathing. When we forcefully expel air from our lungs, that air — and all the droplets it carries — goes further faster.
The amount of viral spread that happens in the open air, of course, is far from clear. Consider, for instance, the six-foot safety rule. A simulation by Bert Blocken of Eindhoven University of Technology demonstrated that runner’s breath can actually travel 65 feet. Is the simulation give frightening weight to my misty run? Most certainly. But it’s also doesn’t actually measure viral spread. In Vox, William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics tore apart conclusions made from Blocken’s simulation, saying “where the droplets are is much less relevant than the amount of transmission that occurs via this route.” In other words, that misty wall I ran through could be — and many would argue is likely to be — a virus-free cloud of water vapor. I’d be quick to point out it could also be a cold sweat of infectious novel coronavirus. There’s a chance — and for me, that’s enough.
The pandemic has driven home that listening to and reacting to scientific research is our best way to keep our neighbors and families safe. But when it comes to small life decisions based on public health, there aren’t really clear-cut answers: Is it okay to hug my friend who has been good at self-isolating and isn’t sick? Do I need to spray my groceries down? Should I run with a mask? The data isn’t really there. So what’s the right thing to do? When people are dying and morgues are actually overflowing, the answer is pretty damn clear: Proceed with an abundance of caution.
Don’t run without a mask. Just don’t do it.
While researchers focus on answering big questions about COVID-19 and public health professionals attempt to understand when schools, airports, and the economy can be reopened, it’s incumbent on individuals to consider the way that small decisions can promote the greater good. The running community simply needs to engage in some introspection. Exercise is not a value. Responsibility is a value. Our behaviors should be informed by our values and by basic common sense. If you’re sick, self-quarantine. If you have young children, skip the playground. If you are going running in a public park, wear a mask.
The issue here is complicated, but the decision is not.