Self-isolating: How okay are long-distance walks in an urban area?
March 25, 2020 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Partner and I are lucky enough to be employed, paid, and able to self-isolate in our home for the indefinite future. Partner has a bit of cabin fever and has been going on long daily walks. Is this okay self-isolating behavior now, and, if so, is there a point where it won't be? We're in a major metroploitan area in the US under a shelter-in-place order which specifies "taking walks outside" as an approved behavior.

I'm more interested in references and links to relatively specific "official" guidance (from reputable government/healthcare authority sources, etc.) and, if available, research regarding the risk of this behavior than "it feels safe/unsafe to me," but I'll take both. Assume that we are familiar with our own region's rules around sheltering in place, and, if course, if there's an order that specifically bans this sort of thing we'll know about it and comply. (That is, we aren't looking for ammunition to push back against a potential future ban on walking outside.)

More detail about our specific situation:

1. Partner is generally out of the house for 2-4 hours per day walking, probably for a total of 5-10 miles. This is often split between a morning and evening walk. I occasionally join partner for the evening walk (I work in the morning).

2. We're in a fairly dense urban area, but think neighborhoods and single-family homes and 2-4 unit buildings rather than high-rises. Generally, we're walking along residental streets and alleys rather than the main drags/commercial strips.

3. Foot traffic is light but there definitely are other people on the streets. In general we can easily give everyone else a wide berth (>6'), even crossing the street, but once in a while a jogger will overtake us without warning and pass with less than 1' of clearance, we'll walk by another group at a blind corner, surprise someone coming out of a doorway, and so on.

4. We don't touch anything, talk to anyone (except greetings at a distance) or enter buildings while walking. I keep my hands in my pockets, partner is handling their phone.

5. We don't wear masks, and don't have any to wear (and haven't tried to make our own).

5. We remove our shoes and wash our hands upon returning but don't take any other measures to "disinfect" (washing or changing clothing, showering, etc.) Partner hates showering--possibly a sensory thing--and I'd be hard-pressed to get them to do it more than once every 5-7 days, let alone daily, let alone any time they return from outside.
posted by pullayup to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Can partner take walks at odd hours when there is less likely to be foot traffic/joggers/etc? I’ve been walking my dog pretty late (around 11/midnight) and there’s way fewer people to worry about.
posted by Weeping_angel at 11:19 AM on March 25, 2020

This doesn't tell you if it's "OK" or not (I don't think anyone can give you a real answer), but you should know that in many other countries dealing with the pandemic, it would not be allowed:

How strict are the UK's distancing rules compared with other countries?
posted by meowzilla at 11:32 AM on March 25, 2020

NPR asked an expert (scroll down):

The primary mode of transmission is through respiratory droplets.

There is better airflow outside than in confined spaces. That air flow outside reduces the risk of one person transmitting the virus to another through droplets in the air, says Albert Ko, the Yale epidemiologist. "So if you're going out and you're hiking or biking or running and you're not within, say, six feet or 10 feet of another person, I would consider that a healthy, safe practice."


I live in a similar east coast city, and went on a 20-minute walk yesterday. I was careful to keep 6 feet away from others, even walking into the street to avoid people, but not everyone is being so mindful. Is there a public park or larger open space for these walks, or at least that could be a large part of the walk, in order to have a better guarantee of proper distancing?
posted by DoubleLune at 11:38 AM on March 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

I don't know. I live in Seattle and I went for a walk 2 days ago. So many people came within 6 feet of me that I decided not to do it again. A man got on the elevator with me when I returned to my building (there are several elevator bays) which truly pissed me off. I came home and changed my clothes and showered. I doubt anybody came close enough to expose me, but people were so cavalier about the rules that it made me uncomfortable. What other advice are people not following?

I do think showering at least every other day is imperative. If my husband was going out for the length of time you outline I'd he uncomfortable but I'd live with it. If he wasnt changing into "inside clothes" and was only showering once a week I would not.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:52 AM on March 25, 2020 [11 favorites]

In the UK this is permitted, sort of. We're allowed one daily form of exercise outside. No restriction on the period or the distance from home.

In France this would not be permitted as the max is one hour, once a day, within 1 km or residence.

In Spain it would not be permitted as the only allowed exercise is to walk a dog.

In Wuhan this would not have been permitted during the full lockdown but in the rest of China it would.

In Israel you have to stay within 100m of your house or flat.

In Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, or Hong Kong this would all be allowed.

It's important in comparing these to understand:
1) Why such restrictions are put into place - It is not to prevent people going outdoors but to prevent people visiting different households or otherwise congregating. If a government was certain that the population would obey instructions not to do so, then they would not need to bring such restrictions in. In some places, governments have found that enough people were breaking the rules to have a meaningful impact. The only way to stop them doing so is to either go and check inside everyone's dwellings which is hardly feasible or to blanket prohibit movement so that people physically can't get to each other.

2) Differences in settlement patterns. The movement rules in France for instance are being enforced in cities but not in the many villages (where it is easy to move around for considerable distances without coming close to others).
posted by atrazine at 11:58 AM on March 25, 2020 [22 favorites]

We have been doing daily walk, as has most of the people I know. All of our parks and conservations areas have been closed because too many people were walking so physical distancing was impossible. Since then what is interesting is the number of people out walking on country roads (I live rural). Roads I have never seen a person on suddenly have lots of walkers - and the significantly reduced road traffic makes it reasonably safe. Is that something that is accessible to you at all? Otherwise, can you contact a local farmer and ask to walk the borders of their fields? Offer to check their fencing perhaps and send picture of places the fence might look weak?
posted by saucysault at 11:59 AM on March 25, 2020

In King County, which includes Seattle, we can go for walks so long as we stay at least six feet away from each other. I've been going on long walks every day and so far haven't had any problems with people getting too close to me, even though there are about ten times more walkers on my route than there usually are.

I don't think you have to keep your hands in your pockets.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:29 PM on March 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Of course it depends on where you are right now whether you're allowed to go out.

Presuming you are allowed, there is risk, if you are passing people etc. "The Coronavirus could pass between people 6ft apart according to the CDC. The risk in going out at all is two fold-- one that you could get it if you don't have it already, and two that you have it and can give it to others without realizing you have it.

"People with mild or no symptoms can have a very high viral load in their upper respiratory tracts, meaning they can shed the virus through spitting, touching their mouths or noses and then a surface, or possibly talking. Even people who don’t feel ill occasionally cough or sneeze."

If you pass someone and they cough, sneeze or exhale, it is risky. And vice-versa. The only way to do it is if you know you live in a place where seeing someone at a distance means they are easily avoidable (crossing to the other side of the street, etc) or at times where you wouldn't see anyone at all. In densely populated areas where you may see a lot of people, pass directly in front of them multiple times a day, I wouldn't risk it.

If you are going to do this, I would go at a time where seeing anyone else is either super avoidable or exceedingly rare, and secondly make your own masks. Even though some sources say masks aren't that helpful or necessary, some studies show that masks do help somewhat in viral shedding-- especially in preventing transmission to others: Surgical masks worn by patients reduce aerosols shedding of virus. There are a few other studies.

Keep in mind these studies are on Influenza transmission, so not Coronavirus, but some of the principles do apply.

My thoughts are that masks don't really hurt so why not? While the CDC says the public doesn't really need them 'unless they are sick' -- a lot of the info is under the assumption that asymptomatic carriers aren't shedding, and we now know that they probably are and that it could be up to "75% as a formidable source of contagion."

So, wearing a mask is primarily to protect others, and the upsides far far outweigh the downsides in my opinion. Wear a mask. Maybe make a few of them, so you can disinfect/wash one and swap them out each days walk etc.
posted by Dimes at 12:39 PM on March 25, 2020

Gretchen Reynolds at the NYT asked a few experts as well.
If I am running the prescribed six feet behind someone on the path and they cough, will I jog right through their germs?

The science about how long the novel virus remains in the air is still unsettled. (You can read about a new study of that issue here.) But it is conceivable that droplets containing the virus could linger long enough for you to breathe them in, Dr. Iwasaki says, if you closely follow someone who is ill and the wind does not disperse the germs first. This precise scenario remains unlikely but not impossible, so look for the “least-crowded paths” available, she says, and perhaps swerve aside if someone coughs or spits ahead of you.
The other advice seems obvious and easy: touch as little as possible and maybe wear disposable gloves if you need to push a beg button for a walk signal, don't use public water fountains, and take off your shoes and wash your hands when you get home.
posted by fedward at 12:52 PM on March 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

In NYC you are allowed to walk outside for exercise, singly, maintaining a 6-foot distance from others. (This is possibly the first time since, like, 1802 that this is actually physically possible.) There's no restriction on total amount of time, but of course the longer you're outside the greater the possibility that something unexpected could happen.

At the same time--these restrictions are important, and everyone should strive to adhere to those of their local authorities. But the risk of any individual encounter remains very low. The goal is to radically reduce the total number of encounters, but no one is pretending that we are eliminating all human contact. If you accidentally bump into one person, it is still very unlikely that you will thus contract the virus and die.
posted by praemunire at 1:14 PM on March 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

An epidemiologist's perspective: yes this is still permitted everywhere in the U.S., and yes that may change, and yes it is reasonable to keep doing this with a hefty use of caveats.

My personal situation: I live in San Francisco, and my main (ok only) joyful exercise is running. I'm an early riser, so I'm used to running at 5 or 5:30 am when almost no one is outside. As safe as the ideal scenario is right now--no touchy, 6 feet of social distance, all the usual stuff--there are variables that are hard to quantify. Time is one of them--depending on the density of your city, we really don't know how persistent airborne aerosols containing the virus might be (there are legit questions in the field about this right now, i.e. what if you're walking downwind of a so-called "super-spreader" for a few blocks, how much of an increase in risk do you face? What if you're exercising so you're breathing heavily and pulling in greater volumes of air? and so on). The longer you're out in the environment, the more likely it is that you'll experience some transient, possibly even unknown environmental expsoure. Is that likelihood small, observing all of the basic provisos? Yes. Is that likelihood zero? No. Do we make mitigated risk decisions every day of our lives by walking, driving, eating, and so on? Of course. Are we all on edge right now? One hundred percent yes.

This isn't medical advice, but it's a good idea to stay close to home on your long walks--the idea being that, even with outdoor movement, we can contain any emergent illness to confined little pockets by encouraging people to stay within 1 km / 100 m / whatever of their homes. This isn't an important measure for an individual, it's only important in the aggregate for a population. If you feel like you need to and can safely go 1.1 km / 101 m / whatever + x distance, then do it. But mind your own rules and bail if/when some doofus comes flying by you coughing on a skateboard--like another poster mentioned, this is when I shamelessly jump my ass off the sidewalk and into the space between cars parked on the street. The longer you're out, and the denser your human surroundings, consider washing your clothes when you return home (if, like me, you're dependent on a laundromat that's going to be open for who knows how long, get used to washing stuff in the sink or bathtub).

I could talk about this all day, but I think this really is one of those scenarios in which we have to respond to our mental health needs quite seriously. If there comes a time when we need to really, truly stay home unless an urgent need arises, then we can all come back and have the discussion about how to manage that. Until then, please do keep using the outdoors as your escape.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:21 PM on March 25, 2020 [33 favorites]

Being as physically healthy as possible is really important right now. So also to consider is the lack of activity level and how that impacts both your mental and physical health if you're not walking.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:29 PM on March 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm doing this and have a cloth mask I can pull over my face is anyone comes close. It's pretty much fine from a transmission issue is my understanding, as long as you stay distant. I didn't get within 50' of another person on my walk today.

The reason for the limited travel allowed other places is often because people are heading to family homes or holiday homes, using petrol stations far from home and the like and taking the virus with them.
posted by fshgrl at 9:07 PM on March 25, 2020

This is only tangentially related to what you're asking but I'm in an area with a stay home order (Detroit) and yesterday when I was walking my dog I encountered wild dogs for the first time and it was terrifying, a random man with a chain and a stick came to my rescue when they came for my dog. Apparently the lack of traffic is making normally scared dogs more bold, so please be careful, I didn't think I'd have to worry about wild animals in Motor City.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 5:10 AM on March 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

The NYT quotes Carolyn C. Cannuscio, a social epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. In short, she says walking is OK as long as you can maintain the 6-foot distance.

“We’re trying to avoid face-to-face contact with other people, so all of our decisions should be made with that in mind,” Ms. Cannuscio said. “I would suggest that people walk at times that streets are less busy, walk in locations where there are fewer people and there’s an opportunity to spread out, and don’t stop and talk with all your neighbors.”

Before each stroll, she said, “scout it out. Peek out the window and see if there are lots of people on the street. If there are, then wait until later. For people who need to pick up their medication at the pharmacy, or need to get food, if you get to the store and it’s crowded, turn around and go home, then go back later.”

The same NYT article quotes Crystal Watson at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security:

“If you’re not within about six feet of somebody, in almost every case you’re not taking much risk,” said Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “So I think people should get out in the sunshine. Taking your dog out for a walk, or going to a park and keeping your distance, is safe and necessary.”

In Austin, Texas, the stay-at-home order specifically allows exercising outdoors as long as you can maintain a 6-foot radius from other people. However, the Trail Foundation has strongly recommended against using a particularly popular and crowded downtown trail on the grounds that the crowds make it impossible to maintain that 6-foot radius. (They don’t have the authority to close the trail, but it sounds like they would if they could.)

So, it sounds like consensus seems to be “Walking outside is fine, if you can stay six feet away from others. If you can’t, don’t do it.”

I haven’t seen specific guidance on showering after walking; only on handwashing.
posted by snowmentality at 6:35 AM on March 26, 2020

I didn't think I'd have to worry about wild animals in Motor City.

...the abandoned/feral dog population has been an issue in Detroit for decades. The parts of the city where white people aren't living remain depopulated in such a way that it's relatively easy for them to live undetected and I imagine now they're venturing further out in search of food. This is unlikely to be a problem in more populated cities.

(Glad your dog is okay, though!)
posted by praemunire at 9:21 AM on March 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

once in a while a jogger will overtake us without warning and pass with less than 1' of clearance

If you carry an open umbrella, people will be forced to not get so close. If your umbrella is not an easy to see color, tie something bright onto the ends of the ribs.

I would treat the umbrella as possibly contaminated on returning home.
posted by yohko at 2:04 PM on March 26, 2020

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