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A Safe, Practical Guide to Getting Outside While Social Distancing

By Maggie Fuller

May 1, 2020

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Yes, you can go outside right now; just keep a safe distance away from others.

Photo by Oleg Podzorov/Shutterstock

Yes, you can go outside right now; just keep a safe distance away from others.

Yes, you can (and should!) leave your house to go for a walk right now. Here’s what you need to know.

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On Sunday, April 26, almost six weeks after San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I took a stroll down to Ocean Beach. Since “lockdown” started, it’s been an important place for residents in my neighborhood to get exercise while social distancing. The main roadway that runs along the dunes has been closed to traffic, allowing pedestrians and bikers to spread out.

But that day, the road was packed. Families clustered near the curbs, taking up half the road; bikers weaved closely between people; and pedestrians cut across all this traffic to get to the beach. San Francisco’s shelter-in-place orders are among the strictest in the nation, and this level of activity seemed to defeat the point. 

And of course, in the middle of it all, I was part of the problem.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s more important than ever to go outside right now. The mental health benefits of nature can help alleviate the fear and anxiety spiked by a pandemic. And with many of us stuck inside for the foreseeable future, going out to hike, bike, or simply stroll will help us stay active and healthy, breathe fresh air, and soak up Vitamin D from the sun. 

But while a walk in the park might feel like a blissful escape from everything that’s going on, where and how we can recreate outside has changed in light of the crisis. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself and others safe while going outside during lockdown.

Is it OK to take a walk right now? 

Yes! Unless you’re sick or are being quarantined after contact with a sick person, you are absolutely allowed to go outside. Even in cities with strict shelter-in-place orders, which direct residents to stay at home unless they need essential services, such as food or medical care, or engage in essential businesses, there are exemptions for outdoor activity. But whether or not you’re on lockdown, you should still continue to observe the principles of social distancing on your hike or walk. And it’s most effective if you avoid large groups of people and try to stay six feet away from others. 

Now is the time to enjoy some solitude in nature.

Can I catch the coronavirus from runners and bikers?

Recent speculation on social media that you can catch the new coronavirus from runners or bikers passing by caused a lot of panic. But that theory has largely been debunked. A recent study by MIT’s Dr. Lydia Bourouiba did find that coughs and sneezes can release clouds of particles that can travel as far as 26 feet, but Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, tells Vox that “the risks of virus transmissibility in the air outdoors is likely quite low in those contexts, although this risk hasn’t been definitively measured.” Sunlight, wind, and temperature can all decrease the virus’s infectivity and transmissibility.

Do I need to wear a mask while exercising?

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After the CDC recommended that people wear masks or cloth face coverings in public settings, there has been uncertainty as to whether this applies while exercising outdoors. Currently, there is no compelling medical reason to wear a mask while walking, running, or cycling, if you are maintaining proper social distancing, Henry Chambers, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, tells the Wall Street Journal. But that only applies if you are really avoiding the crowds and maintaining six feet of space (or more) from others.

However, masks have become a sign of solidarity these days. Consider wearing your mask around your neck so you can pull it on to be courteous when you’re passing others. 

Can I hike with friends?

It’s tempting to use your time outdoors to catch up with friends and neighbors, since social gatherings at houses, restaurants, and bars are no longer advisable. And kids in particular may be clamoring for playdates in the park. You can, of course, invite the people you live with to join you for a walk, but meeting up with people from outside your household could defeat the purpose of these strict containment measures. To stay socially distant, avoid close contact—according to the CDC, that means staying farther than six feet away from others. 

Even with the best intentions, I don’t think I could manage to stay six feet away from a friend on a hike. I can picture it: We’d have oddly loud conversation over the awkward distance and trip over ourselves trying to gauge proper separation on a narrow path. And then at the end of it all, we’d probably accidentally hug goodbye. And I can’t even imagine keeping an energetic toddler from bouncing off everyone in the vicinity.

Does that mean you have to cross the street whenever you see a person or only go outside if there’s no one else around? No, simply passing another human being is a low-risk situation, but things get tricky when you’re in a crowd, even if you’re with people you love and trust. For now, it’s best to not hike with others.

Where can I go for a walk while social distancing? 

Avoid favorite hiking trails and aim instead for quieter spots. Popular places are still getting mobbed during this pandemic: Many national parks were recently forced to close because the crowds created unsafe conditions, and even just last weekend, hundreds of thousands of visitors swarmed the beaches of Southern California. But the more people there are in an area, the harder it is to maintain that required six feet of distance. Even as shelter-in-place restrictions start to loosen in the parks and playgrounds of cities across the country, it’s still best to avoid the crowds. Rather than head for a beloved overlook or waterfront, consider a long walk around your neighborhood.

AllTrails is a great resource for finding trails, paths, and urban walks near you. The app and website use your location to provide you with nearby hiking suggestions, with information about distance, difficulty, and popularity. You can use a map view of search results to find trails within walking distance from your house or filter by usual trail traffic. 

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Self-isolation is hard. It takes a lot of effort, preparation, and energy to change your routines and lifestyle, and it can get lonely. But if you’re making all that effort, don’t erase your hard work by putting yourself in a crowded place. Besides, aren’t the outdoors a little nicer when it feels like you have them all to yourself?

It will likely be hard to maintain a six-foot separation if you’re hiking with friends.

Will national and state parks be open?

The short answer is that it depends on your location. While the Department of the Interior (DOI) initially waived admission at all national parks to aid in social distancing, through March and April, many parks began to shut down to discourage the resulting overcrowding. By late April, hundreds of National Park Service (NPS) sites had shuttered

On Friday, April 24, 2020, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt announced that the NPS and DOI would begin to gradually increase access to the parks in accordance with the president’s three-phased plan to reopen the country. However, many closed parks have yet to begin this process.

In smaller parks, closure can mean that visitor centers and facilities stop operating and special programming is canceled, but larger, more popular parks have closed roads, parking lots, and specific areas, or even barred access to the entire park.

In parks that are still operating for day use, park bathrooms will be open and trash services will be running. But if you’re visiting a closed park, you will not be able to rely on those same facilities or emergency services. 

For now, it’s best to continue avoiding large, popular parks and focus instead on the national, state, and local park areas closest to your home. Traveling into other communities right now, especially the small ones near many national parks, can put you and local residents at risk.

Check the status of your local park sites on the NPS website or state park system websites. 

Much like a year ago, when we wrote about how to visit a national park during a government shutdown, the loss of funding to national parks when they are forced to close can be devastating. You may want to support these beautiful spaces by donating the equivalent of an entrance fee to your favorite spot. 

What else do I need to know?

Mixing up the time of day you go for a walk (or a run!) can also help you avoid crowds. Many folks love a sunset stroll, but sunrises tend to be lonelier. At lunchtime, jogging routes can get busy, but if you can pop out at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m., you’ll be less likely to fall into step with others.

Finally, staying healthy doesn’t just mean avoiding COVID-19. Bring a water bottle on your walk to make sure you’re staying hydrated. Don’t forget to wear a hat and sunscreen if you’re going to be outside in the sun and layer up if it’s chilly out. A spring sunburn or head cold is the last thing you need right now.  

This article originally appeared online on March 20, 2020; it was updated on May 1, 2020, to include current information.

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