Credit: Illustration by Hunter Myers

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Running gives Margaret Sprock a temporary escape from her restricted routine. Like many other local residents during the novel coronavirus pandemic, exercising outside is one of the few reasons Sprock leaves her home, and she’s using this opportunity to explore the neighborhood and new running routes near where she lives in Silver Spring.

“I think I would go crazy if I couldn’t get out and exercise,” Sprock says.

She also tries to follow health guidelines and safety precautions as diligently as possible while running. Sprock, 29, runs alone and feels strongly that others should do the same. When she sees someone walking, she assumes the responsibility of going around them and will wait for walkers to pass when crossing a bridge or intersection. She always washes her hands when she gets home.

So when a woman driving a car pulled up next to her at a traffic light during a recent afternoon run, Sprock smiled and thought she was asking for directions. Instead, the woman berated her.

“I stopped and looked at her, and she said, ‘You’re running without a mask. You’re breathing all over people. Who do you think you are?’” Sprock recalls. “She asked me, ‘What’s your name?’ I was like, OK, I’m getting out of here.”

Sprock isn’t the only one being shamed, policed, or publicly chastised—whether online or in person—for not following what may or may not be a rule. Neighborhood forums have disintegrated into virtual shouting matches about the merits of running during a global pandemic. Runners, in turn, have gotten angry at walkers who take up the width of trails and sidewalks and at cyclists and skateboarders who whiz by without warning. 

Everyone, it seems, is on edge. Social distancing recommendations can be ambiguous and people are understandably scared, considering the coronavirus pandemic has led to more than 169,000 deaths worldwide and more than 44,000 deaths in the United States as of April 22. Even the simple joy of outdoor physical activity can quickly escalate into a contentious situation. 

“I think people have so much stress in their lives right now, whether it’s the loss of a job or just fear,” Sprock says. “It kind of makes people around them an easy target or outlet for taking those feelings out on them.”

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That’s not to say runners are faultless. Sometimes they get too close to others while passing. They ignore social and physical distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by running in groups. Local residents on social media report runners blasting by them with little room to spare. 

With gyms closed and more people turning to running for exercise, it may be hard for everyone to share trails or sidewalks, especially in a dense city like D.C. Newer runners may not understand the common etiquette of giving walkers a warning when behind them.

Two weeks ago, a Bloomingdale resident posted on the neighborhood message board website Nextdoor imploring runners to not get so close. “If you are running, I don’t want to break your stride. Really,” the person wrote. “But, please, please for the time being, please dont [sic] blow past people sweating, huffing and puffing within 2 feet. I get it, you need to get your exercise in, but please consider the health of others while doing it. That is all.”

“Agreed. It’s a bit selfish on the runners part,” a Truxton Circle resident replied.

The post led to a spirited discussion about what runners should or should not do. 

Another D.C. resident wrote: “I personally hope the city starts fining anyone walking, running, breathing outside without a mask on. Oh and a super large fine if you spit on the sidewalk. Everyone—just wear a mask.”

The viral “study” by Belgian and Dutch researchers about runners needing to stay more than the recommended six feet apart from others also made an appearance. As Vice points out, epidemiologists have not found the study to be very useful.

Some comments online have been decidedly less civil. 

“Saw a girl crossing the street to avoid two runners without masks then get boxed in by yet another runner without a mask in the bike lane and she just screamed ‘FUCK ALL OF YOU’ and I want her to be president,” tweeted Los Angeles-based comedian Dan Sheehan.

General guidelines have added to the confusion of what is permissible. The CDC recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” 

In Montgomery County, where Sprock lives, face masks are required in “grocery stores, pharmacies, and large chain retail establishments.”

So should runners wear masks or a face covering? The answer depends on the situation. Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, a non-profit organization based in Bethesda, does not believe runners should be required to wear masks.

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“The risk of transmission is through prolonged face-to-face contact with someone else, within six feet in an enclosed room. That’s where the real risk of transmission occurs,” he says. “If you are whisking past someone as a jogger, your chances of picking up coronavirus from that jogger—should they be asymptomatic—the possibility of transmission is very, very low … My suggestion is to interpret general guidelines to a specific situation. In terms of exercising, one of the things I recommend is to be somewhere you can exercise that is less densely populated. Go during off-peak hours where there are fewer people on the street.”

Schaffner also works as a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he says he sees “a lot of people walking, joggers, and the occasional bicyclists.” But it’s not nearly at the level of a crowded city like D.C., where trails and sidewalks can get busy, particularly during hours when residents are off work. In those scenarios, Schaffner recommends wearing a cloth face covering (not surgical masks or N95 respirators) while exercising—for health reasons and as a symbolic gesture.

“If that’s the kind of situation, I would be more inclined to say that we all have to get with the program, that you have to wear a mask if there’s the density of people out there,” he says. “I think both for symbolic reasons and that you’re passing so many people, maybe it would be wise to wear some sort of face covering or mask—runners as well. If a lot of people are on the trail and you’re passing them not every five minutes, but every 30 seconds, then I think you should be wearing masks. Even passing momentarily, you’re encountering an awful lot of people.”

“Runners should neither be villainized nor should they try to take advantage,” Schaffner adds.

Dr. Glenn Wortmann, the chief of infectious diseases at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, agrees. “How much of the virus that actually comes out when you cough or breathe or how much is inhaled, there’s so many variables, it’s impossible to predict,” he says. “The six feet that has been advised just in normal social distancing, you want to do at least that while exercising, but the risk of transmitting just running by someone that is walking, that instance is extraordinarily low, if not zero.” 

Like Schaffner, he understands that people are still nervous and recommends finding alternate times and pathways to exercise when there aren’t many out. He believes it’s OK to exercise without a mask—Wortmann rides his bike without one—but that not doing so means you should be vigilant about maintaining the appropriate distance away from others.

“I would be courteous with regards to being around other people,” Wortmann says. “What that means is you should not be running in a pack. When you’re biking, you should not be drafting off the person in front of you. Leave adequate space.”

***

What’s more clear is that shaming others isn’t always an effective tool. Shouting at someone on the sidewalk or scolding them on Twitter won’t get people to change their behaviors, especially if they don’t believe they did anything wrong.

“In general, when people feel shamed by others, they’re not inclined to take the other person’s perspective, so much as they’re likely to get defensive or angry or start pointing fingers back,” says George Mason University psychology professor June Price Tangney. “It doesn’t seem to cause people to change their behavior much. If anything, people are more likely to dig in their heels. One of the general questions is: This public shaming of people for not social distancing, is it a good idea? It kind of feels good, but it doesn’t accomplish what people think it’s going to accomplish.”

On a recent run, D.C. resident Kerry Allen was heading up 16th Street NW when she saw a man ahead staring at her on the sidewalk. As she got closer, the man yelled, “Give people their space!”

It took Allen a few moments to realize what he had said. She estimates she was about eight feet away from him.

“It doesn’t sound very dramatic at all, but it really ruined my run,” says Allen, who competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February

Allen, 31, replayed the interaction in her head for the rest of the workout. The incident itself won’t change her running routine, but she’s still experimenting with different routes and going at different times of the day to see which option would be safest for her and those around.

“It’s a trying time for everyone,” Allen says. “I think a lot of people are trying to treat people with respect and give people the benefit of the doubt, and then there’s some people who aren’t following the rules at all or are overzealous and seem to act like they’re the only ones allowed to use the sidewalk, that it’s everyone else’s responsibility to stay far away from people. We live in a city. It takes cooperation from everyone.”

Instead of shame, Tangney, the author, with Ronda L. Dearing, of the bookShame and Guilt, recommends instructing people in a constructive way by giving them an option. In general, she explains, the fundamental difference is when people feel shame, they feel bad about themselves, but when they feel guilt, they feel bad about a particular behavior.

It’s hard to induce guilt without inducing shame, Tangney adds.

“I hesitate to say [use] guilt in this case. I think it’s just getting people aware of, and expressing real concern,” she says. “Telling them, ‘I’m concerned about your health and other people’s health’—giving them a way to change their behavior, not a demand.”

“There’s no easy answer,” she continues. “But I’m sympathetic of people’s need to exercise and get out, and connect with nature and the world and also connect with the idea that we’re all in this together. We’re in the same world for the first time in a while. Everyone around the globe is dealing with this. It’s quite an astounding thought.”

***

When Sprock returned home after being scolded at the intersection, she went online and checked Montgomery County’s coronavirus website. She felt guilty and wanted to know if she did indeed break a rule by not wearing a mask.

When she saw the local government’s recommendations did not specify runners, she felt relieved. But the woman’s comments still rang in her head.

“I know in a lot of countries, some of the lockdowns include not running outside,” Sprock says. “I’m sticking to the guidelines because I don’t want them to take running away from us. When someone yelled at me, it was a kick in the gut because I have tried really hard to follow guidelines. To be attacked for something that’s not even an accurate guideline really bothered me a lot.”

The following morning, she went on another run in the neighborhood and again chose not to wear a mask. With temperatures in the 60s, it was an ideal day to be outside. She saw other runners, walkers, and families enjoying the weather. No one made a comment to her.

Sprock thought about the past month and how in these difficult and challenging times, most people she’s come across have been friendly. Walkers have thanked her for going around them with a smile or a wave. 

“Everyone,” she says, “is doing their best.”