New York – The photo stopped me in my tracks: Californians jogging, walking and cycling along a crowded bike path. Surely it must have been snapped weeks ago, before “social distancing” became a phrase on everyone’s lips? No: The photo was dated March 28, almost 10 days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a “stay at home” order to combat the coronavirus pandemic in the state.
Experts have repeatedly assured us it’s safe to spend time outside — in fact it’s pretty much the only activity they have said is safe. Epidemiologists have even framed outdoor exercise as a healthy way to boost the immune system. Certainly, getting outside is essential for mental health — and there have been numerous studies linking time in nature to increased resilience and decreased stress.
But of course, going outside during a pandemic is safe only as long as you stay well away from other people. And since several other things the experts said have turned out to be falsely reassuring — masks wouldn’t help, coronavirus isn’t airborne, you only really have to stay home if you feel sick — it’s no wonder some of us are now wondering if it’s truly safe to take a stroll.
What if spending time outside is not as safe as we’ve been told? I feel like a chump for having believed expert reassurances before; it’s a mistake I don’t want to make again. But when experts disagree, it’s tough to know who to believe. And with some outdoor organizations urging people to avoid popular parks, even as epidemiologists continue to say going outside is safe, how are ordinary people supposed to make up our minds?
Scientific information on how far the virus can travel through the air, and how long it can stay airborne, doesn’t give a very clear answer. On Thursday, Dr. Harvey Fineberg of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine told the White House that, in fact, the virus can be spread just by breathing; the same day, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revisit its guidance on masks. And what about all the surfaces you might come into contact with en route to a park or trailhead, like elevators, doorknobs, gas pumps?
Then there’s the crowding occurring in many public open spaces — like that California bike path. Even in New York City, by far the hardest hit area in the U.S., recent photos show Manhattanites sharing Central Park benches in the April sunshine even as field hospital tents sprout up like mushrooms.
Officials have tried to limit crowds in public spaces to prevent people from getting too close to one another. Hudson Valley parks have tried to limit crowding by reducing parking lot capacity.
In the United Kingdom, after public parks and gardens were swamped with visitors, Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked people to limit themselves to one outdoor excursion per day. In Colorado, officials tried to reduce crowding at popular trailheads by asking people to go outdoors only in their own counties.
It isn’t clear that these measures have worked. On Wednesday, New York Gov.Andrew Cuomo finally announced that New York City would close its playgrounds — but leave parks open. He encouraged New Yorkers to keep going outside — while maintaining a two-meter distance from each other. “Use the open space in a park, walk around, get some sun, great,” he said. “No density, no basketball games, no close contact.”
And yet some don’t think going outside is wise right now. Writing in the Atlantic, Deborah Copaken details how she started feeling sick March 18 during a bike ride in New York City; after 10 minutes, she had to turn around and go home. When she called a doctor, the doctor immediately diagnosed her cough as a “COVID cough” and was incredulous that she’d been cycling “with viral load everywhere.” When Copaken protested that she thought experts had said going outside to exercise was safe, the doctor flatly contradicted her. “Not in New York. Not right now.”
In March, New York State Parks and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued a joint statement announcing a number of changes to make their facilities safer, but also recommended that New Yorkers over 70, or those with compromised immune systems, not go outside — unless it was in their own backyard or another “personal outdoor space.”
Meanwhile, reports from across the country describe parks as overrun, with cars “spilling out of trailhead parking lots.” In Colorado, California and Washington, many parks have closed. Officials in the Adirondacks have begged would-be visitors to stay away. State officials in New York urge people using outdoor spaces to “stay local and keep visits short.”
The debate over exactly what kind of outdoor recreation might continue to spread the virus has ripped through the usually amiable hiking community. Once-placid message boards formed to share summit selfies and trail conditions now host vicious arguments over whether to obey the requests from outdoor organizations and search-and-rescue teams to “hike low, slow, solo and local.”
Green space can be a great calmer. And top experts and officials keep saying it’s safe to visit parks and green spaces.
If only so many other people didn’t want to be outside, too.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review.