Social distancing offers pedestrians vital protection in outdoor spaces

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GRAPHIC BY TARA VASANTH / THE FLAT HAT

Since early March, I’ve been at home like most other students at the College of William and Mary. I wrote in The Flat Hat a few weeks ago about how COVID-19 has created a toxic environment for young adults where we’ve been coerced to make the most of our quarantine by creating strict, productive schedules and setting a myriad of personal goals. I think these quests for productivity are mostly hogwash; however, I do emphatically believe that exercise, which appears in many of these schedules, can play an important role in combating anxiety, loneliness and other negative emotions brought on by self-isolation.

I’ve tried to get out of my house for runs and walks as much as possible over the past six weeks and being outside simultaneously soothes my anxious nerves while still providing some semblance of normality in a chaotic world. However, I am increasingly frustrated by my neighbors’ inexplicable failure to adhere to even the simplest social distancing protocols while outdoors.

Most people who’ve watched or read the news in the past two months can repeat public health experts’ refrains by heart: stay six feet away from other people, minimize social interaction outside of the home, wear masks in public and limit non-essential travel. Where I live in Northern Virginia, people have done a decent job of following these guidelines in public spaces. I always see individuals clad in masks and gloves when I travel to the grocery store every other Tuesday morning, and families try their best to stand a few feet apart from other patrons while grabbing boxed pasta and wine – the two essentials of any global health crisis.

GRAPHIC BY MAGGIE MORE / THE FLAT HAT

Following my expeditions to the grocery store, I usually go for a run. As soon as I leave my townhouse, I immediately find myself surrounded by wailing children, couples and entire intergenerational cohorts that clog up suburban Fairfax County’s narrow sidewalks and refuse to move when any other pedestrian passes them. I try and maintain a six-foot distance from other people even while exercising, which has earned me nasty stares from other pedestrians when I actively avoid running near them, who must think I’m repulsed by their presence or suddenly feel self-conscious that they have terrible breath. Regardless of what’s going on in their heads, jutting out awkwardly into the road for a few seconds as I sprint by, as I’ve done for several weeks now, is entirely unsafe. I’m beyond frustrated.

Why is it so difficult for people to follow social distancing expectations during outdoor recreation and exercise when they seem to manage with those guidelines just fine in public spaces? While I can empathize with humanity’s shared exasperation with COVID-19 and the hellish societal consequences it has, there is no excuse for jeopardizing my health, or someone else’s, by refusing to follow common sense protocols outdoors. People seem to think that outdoor recreation is immune from governmental regulation, which it most certainly is not; the British government made waves earlier this month by advising citizens to follow social distancing guidelines outdoors or face an outright ban. While I am skeptical that most Americans could ever stomach adhering to any policy this strict, it’s still a troubling threat.

Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes out and tells Americans that the novel virus can’t be contracted on lovely spring days with zero humidity, then by all means, have at it, random neighbors. Disregard social distancing guidelines and cling as tightly as you wish to passersby on the street. But until we get that stipulation, for the love of all that is mighty: try harder at exercising common sense outside, or we’re in for a much longer, bumpier ride than anyone wants or deserves.

Email Ethan Brown at ewbrown@email.wm.edu.