Social distancing is about to get a whole lot harder
It's another Friday in America, but we are not living in the same country we were even a week ago. Since last Sunday, versions of shelter-in-place orders have gone into effect in more than half the states; California, uniquely, will be spending its second weekend under government-mandated quarantine, while the rest of us are going into our first.
Viruses don't take weekends off, though, and neither should our social distancing precautions. Still, it can be extremely tempting to ignore the orders to stay primarily indoors, particularly as spring continues to warm up the northern hemisphere. As people lose their patience with being cooped up inside — and as the thermometer rises after a long, cold winter — isolation is going to get a lot harder to voluntarily follow.
Just look at last weekend, when governors and health experts were already cautioning people against being in public for longer than absolutely necessary. Places of natural congregation, like trail heads, parks, and popular running paths, were swarmed in many cities as people sought ways to get out of their homes and stretch their legs. Alarming photographs emerged from places like Washington state, Illinois, New York, and Oregon, of lax social distancing practices — or none at all.
It's understandable, to some degree. The end of March and beginning of April mark the transition from winter activities into summer ones in most states, as running outside grows more bearable, cyclists switch to short sleeve jerseys, and eager hikers start to hit trails as they melt out at the lower altitudes. While there are still many days of bad weather ahead — here come April showers! — you start to get beautiful, cobalt skies again as well. I've found myself feeling like a cartoon character, staring longingly out my window at sun-drenched streets I'm now warned against idling on.
It's especially hard when you feel like you've earned an escape from your home or apartment after a long week trapped inside. "Everybody is going to think that it's the weekend; therefore, we can take a break from the discipline of what we're having to apply for the care of those around us," Midland, Texas, Mayor Patrick Payton explained to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. "Just because it's the weekend doesn't mean we're off high alert." Even if your local parks haven't closed, or the basketball hoops are still up down the street, it is imperative to keep up proper isolation and suspend all group sports.
That doesn't mean you can't go outdoors at all. Fresh air is a wonderful head-clearer, and in many senses there's never been a better time to take up running. The virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets or contaminated surfaces, both of which are fairly simple to avoid if you're purposeful about your actions. If you have a backyard you can use, or a porch or balcony for sunning yourself, even better. If not, be responsible about where you choose to walk or exercise when you leave your home.
What this is not is a free-for-all on the outdoors. "People, it's a pandemic, not an Instagram-documented sabbatical," urged an op-ed in Outside recently. Even remote corners of the country that might seem safe and distant from other people need to be protected; as the Continental Divide Trail Coalition puts it, "We are thinking of the fact that many trailside communities ... are small and isolated, and may be hours away from the closest COVID-19 testing center or, more importantly, the closest hospital equipped to treat patients in severe respiratory distress." Brendan Madigan — whose backcountry store in Tahoe City, California, has been overrun since the outbreak — told Outside, "shelter in place doesn't mean shelter in place and go ski touring. It means stay in your damn house."
We're lucky to still have the freedoms we do, and it'd be better for everyone not to abuse them so we can continue to enjoy the outdoors in moderation as it warms this spring. In other countries, though, governments have cracked down on how much physical activity you can partake in outside. In France, for example, all walks or exercise must be "within a distance of one kilometer maximum of your home, for one hour, and obviously alone, once a day," according to the prime minister. In Italy's Lombardy region, one of the worst of the global hotspots, all outdoor activities of any kind have been banned. Such a reality might not be that far in the future, either, for America's worst-hit states; Chicago, while I was writing this, closed several of its parks, beaches, and popular trails.
Consider this the general rule of thumb, then, if you're leaving your house this weekend: interact with everyone and everything as if you have a confirmed case of COVID-19. Would you go to the park for a walk if you knew you were contagious with a disease that could potentially kill anyone you came into close contact with? Perhaps, but if you did, you'd make positively sure to maintain a six-foot distance, to use hand sanitizer before touching any shared surfaces, and to in every way minimize your chance of passing anything dangerous back into your community.
This is not the time to be selfish. Get your vitamin D, stretch your legs, but don't forget: you owe it to other people to get back inside again after you do.
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