Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Officials in some California communities are placing the burden on runners to avoid exposing others to “airborne particles,” even if it means moving off sidewalks or yielding to non-runners.
However, some officials acknowledge enforcement will be an uphill battle. As for the idea that runners pose a greater health risk than other pedestrians, the science is not necessarily on their side.
Yet, runners are being singled out as more dangerous, on the theory we "more forcefully expel airborne particles" in a way that decreases the effectiveness of social distancing. One such order takes effect on Monday in Yolo County, California, near Sacramento. The order reads:
Because running or bicycling causes people to more forcefully expel airborne particles, making the usual minimum 6 feet distance less adequate, runners and cyclists must take steps to avoid exposing others to those particles, which include the following measures: crossing the street when running to avoid sidewalks with pedestrians; slowing down and moving to the side when unable to leave the sidewalk and nearing other people; never spitting; and avoiding running or cycling directly in front of or behind another runner or cyclist who is not in the same household.
Similar orders took effect within the last week in several other California counties, including San Mateo County in the Bay Area.
The idea that runners and cyclists "more forcefully expel airborne particles" is not universally held. Earlier this month, Outside Magazine cited context from experts in infectious diseases and airborne-disease transmission indicating there is not conclusive evidence indicating runners pose greater health risks than others.
Nevertheless, the California orders generally recommend wearing masks, even though the orders fall short of requiring them for runners.
Again, from a scientific standpoint, the jury is still out on whether masks make a difference during exercise. In fact, wearing a mask could increase runners' chance of health difficulty. The Outside Magazine article by Martin Fritz Huber quoted Dr. Sarah Doernberg, an associate Professor at University of California San Francisco who specializes in infectious diseases, who said:
Covering your nose and mouth while you’re exerting yourself may lead to other medical problems—and the fact is that your mask is going to get wet. As soon as the mask gets wet, it’s not going to be effective anymore.
While the orders in California counties do not require runners and cyclists to wear masks, they do require social distancing. The San Mateo County order reads:
Wearing a Face Covering is not required while engaging in outdoor recreation such as walking, hiking, bicycling, or running. But each person engaged in such activity must comply with social distancing requirements including maintaining at least six feet of separation from all other people not part of the same household to the greatest extent possible.
What is the penalty for violating the orders? The San Mateo order warns a failure to comply “constitutes an imminent threat and immediate menace to public health, constitutes a public nuisance, and is punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.”
The Yolo County order takes a softer stance, explaining that enforcement efforts will be directed otherwise:
Individual violators are unlikely to be cited, with enforcement directed instead at non-complying Essential Businesses and other enterprises. Despite this, through voluntary compliance, all individuals have an opportunity to contribute to public health and the welfare of our community. Individuals that choose not to wear Face Coverings when required by this Order may encounter difficulties such as being refused access to public transit and Essential Businesses.
Can municipalities regulate runners in the first place and treat them differently than other pedestrians? We have been down this road before.
In the early 1980s, as the "running boom" was really booming, runners were singled out in communities including Holmdel Township, New Jersey and Mill Neck, New York with ordinances that required runners but not other pedestrians to wear reflective clothing. The ordinances also threatened fines and even jail time for violating traffic laws.
The ordinances were not broadly enforced. And as officials in Yolo County observed in the order that takes effect Monday, enforcement will be a difficult endeavor with respect to social distancing as well.
Still, laws or not, runners are wise to do their part to maintain social distancing and keep their communities safe, while also keeping themselves safe. That includes taking extra precautions when moving from a sidewalk to the street to maintain social distancing, a step the California orders seem to suggest if not require.
(Photo: Downloadable poster at www.eastbayexpress.com; Steve Aggergaard photo)