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Running is safe right now, but most runners will have to change their gross habits

The New York Daily News - 3/19/2020

Even as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down increasingly large parts of society, public health officials and experts have encouraged people to exercise outside in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal leader on coronavirus policy, has said that running right now is "not only safe, it’s healthy.” Fauci himself is a serious runner.

Dr. Asaf Bitton, the director of Harvard’s public health school and the author of the guide on how to practice social distancing, told the New Yorker that “the key thing is that you are going to want to go outside, and I am concerned that people are misconstruing social distancing as a recommendation to not get fresh air.” His guide explicitly says to “Exercise, take walks/runs outside.”

Even under the Bay Area’s “shelter-in-place” lockdown -- a similar one is likely headed for most of the United States -- outdoor exercise is encouraged.

“You will still be able to walk your dog or go on a hike alone or with someone you live with or even with another person as long as you keep six feet between you,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco health department director and the director of AIDS policy under the Obama administration.

This consensus ignores one thing, though: Runners are gross. Most regular runners habitually or maybe even compulsively spit or snot rocket while they’re running. I checked with dozens of runners this week about their spitting and snot-rocketing habits; the overwhelming majority confirmed they did so regularly.

I live in central Brooklyn and have been running in Prospect Park every evening since Rudy Gobert’s positive test. It has shocked me how crowded the park is, and even as the amount of people on picnics and dates has thinned out, there’s still a large volume of runners and cyclists on the 3.4-mile path around the perimeter of the park -- like, more than there normally would be. Is that not just a huge mass of people failing to practice social distancing? Even worse, a lot of them are spitting and blowing their noses everywhere.

On Thursday, I called Maria Khan, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor in the department of population health at NYU Langone. She kindly put up with a barrage of very specific and gross questions about what runners do with their mouths and noses while running.

Khan, like me, is a runner. She explained why it’s still safe to run outside, how to think about the large crowds in popular parks right now, and made it clear that for many runners, their habits will have to change.

“What’s considered close contact where you’re at greatest risk is within six feet. But it’s for sustained duration of like, an hour," Khan said. “For example, being in an Uber with someone driving to the airport for an hour and you end up figuring out they’re infected, that’s a greater risk than running by somebody for a second. So no, I don’t think we have to be completely paranoid. Keep up with your exercise if you’re healthy. ... If you need to run by someone because you don’t want to get hit by a car or a bike, I think it’s fine.”

If your schedule is flexible now, Khan suggested trying to find a quieter time if possible.

“If you can go at a time when it’s less crowded, that’s best," she said.

What about those habitual snot rockets? Khan said there are differing degrees of risk, but wanted to be clear: “Please, make the message: Try not to spit. If you have to, move to a less-traveled part of your route such as off the road in the grass."

“Keeping your fluids to yourself is going to be important if there are people around," she said. “We should be on the side of being very conservative and not coughing or spitting when running near others. That’s the party line.”

Khan echoed other public health experts about the safety of exercise, though, and explained why it’s still OK for Americans to be running right now. (Runners, cyclists, and walkers in Italy have reported mixed signals about whether they’re allowed to exercise outside. And running in Spain is totally banned.)

“Expectorant can remain in the air when it’s not moving for up to three hours, such as in a closed room. But the studies show that the virus is 18 times less likely to be transmitted in open air," she said.

For runners, who again, are habitual spitters, there’s a difference between a silent suburban trail and a packed city park.

"If I’m running in New Rochelle, where I live, and there’s nobody on the street -- even though it’s a ‘hot zone’ -- it’s different than if I’m in Prospect Park around a lot of people. You could spit in the grass and know that nobody’s going to be around for a long time. Let’s try to not spit if you’re in a dense urban area exercising,” she emphasized.

And there’s a difference between thoughtlessly snot-rocketing and getting it to the ground.

“If you must spit, try to move yourself to a wooded area or off the side of the road, and get it to the ground. That way, you’re not putting your saliva in the air, get to the ground," she said. She added that aerosolization is most likely from a cough, which runners also frequently do.

"Then take your shoes off at the door when you get home, completely strip down and take a shower.”

On that note, while I’m not a cyclist, I wondered: Is a bicycle basically a gross vector of disease that you could be storing in a cramped apartment? The answer is basically yes. Khan pointed to a New England Journal of Medicine article published Tuesday.

"That demonstrated that especially on stainless steel and plastic, the virus can hang out for more than one day. You should be wiping down your bike with an alcohol-based solvent like a Lysol wipe. Basically every time you touch the bike you should wash your hands and wipe the bike because indeed, the viral particles can remain on the bike.”

Every activity has its own level of risk right now, and Khan wanted to point out one more.

“People are going to virtual workout platforms, and that’s great. The trick with that is for people to make sure that if you live in a crowded apartment building and you have friends, that you’re not exercising in your living room together. If you’re exercising at home, do it within your own family unit.”

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