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A simple guide to safe social distancing when getting some exercise

bike path
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Minnesotans are getting mixed messages from even well-intentioned people about how far they really should stay away from others.

It’s all over social media these days: neighbors reprimanding neighbors for venturing out for a walk or a bike ride and getting a little too close to other people for comfort.

Despite Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, which went into effect last weekend and prohibits Minnesotans from leaving their homes, except for necessary excursions and things like exercise, the crowds on some trails were packed so tightly they got the governor’s attention.

“We’re seeing crowds are a little too big especially around the lakes,” Walz said in a press briefing this week.

But as with many things surrounding this new virus, Minnesotans are getting mixed messages from even well-intentioned people about how far they should stay away from others. Do the same rules apply outdoors as indoors? Should you leave a 6-foot berth or a 25-foot one? If you pass someone on a running trail with only a few feet between you, are you likely to get sick or get them sick?

For guidance on these questions, MinnPost turned to Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, who is a runner and an associate professor of medicine in the University of Minnesota’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine.

Stay home if you’re even a little sick

An important piece of guidance for people contemplating a jaunt outdoors right now is to stay in if they’re feeling under the weather, Drekonja said.

That’s contrary to what a lot of runners usually do, Drekonja said. But now more than ever, it’s important to stay home.

“Those are the exact people who shouldn’t be out coughing and sneezing,” he said. Plus, there is concern with COVID-19 that people who are infected don’t feel ill right away, so it’s good to be cautious at the first sign of sickness.

Give people some space

If you stand close to someone who has COVID-19 for minutes, there’s a substantial risk of picking up the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But walking past a patient with COVID-19 in a hospital is not considered a high-risk activity in terms of contracting the virus.

You are even less likely to get COVID-19 just from passing somebody with it on a running or walking path, where air is circulating much more quickly than it would indoors, and droplets — including ones carrying viruses — disperse quickly.

“When you’re outside, it’s an order of magnitude more air. It’s really kind of negligible,” Drekonja said.

There are limits to that logic, though. If everyone decides to walk around Lake Harriet on the same sunny afternoon, and people are within close proximity to others the entire time, “then you might be overwhelming the availability of fresh air and the space outside to protect you.”

What about passing someone on a trail — sometimes a bit closer than you might like to be?

Not a huge concern. “I swing wide around people not because I want to protect myself but because I don’t want to get someone yelling at me,” Drekonja said.

You are unlikely to get COVID-19 just from passing somebody with it on a running or walking path.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
You are unlikely to get COVID-19 just from passing somebody with it on a running or walking path.
Be careful when you touch things

Sometimes it’s tough not to touch things when you take a walk. For example: The staircase to the bottom of Minnehaha Falls is long and a bit steep, and some walkers might want to use the handrail in navigating it.

There’s some research on how long COVID-19 lasts on surfaces, but not a lot of data on how that changes in natural sunlight, Drekonja said. If you want to be ultra careful, don’t touch things other people touch in public. A less extreme measure would be to wear gloves, don’t touch your face with them, take them off when you leave and wash your hands very well.

Do get outside

Drekonja has noticed the policing of neighbors’ activities on social media, and some of it strikes him as a little out of hand. In general, a combination of reasonable distancing and handwashing should put people at ease when they go out.

“Probably the best thing a lot of us can do for mental health, and kids’ mental health, is to go outside,” he said.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 04/03/2020 - 11:10 am.

    Thanks for this useful info. I see a lot of folks who are getting paranoid about transmission, and with we had better information about what we should be doing and how much we should be freaking out about people walking around or whatever.

  2. Submitted by Larry Moran on 04/03/2020 - 12:06 pm.

    Thanks for the simple guidelines for taking a walk. In the last few days I’ve seen people be a little more aware of spacing when walking around the lake.

    On a separate topic I wonder if you could discuss the risks associated with buying unwrapped fresh fruit and vegetables (those not in their own containers like a banana) and how to mitigate those risks. I’ve heard from different sources what should be done but a similar report to this one would help.


  3. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 04/03/2020 - 06:04 pm.

    This is another fine article written by Greta Kaul.

    Earlier, my doctor told me that CDC recommended against face masks for non-ill or medical professional people. This is being reversed at the federal level and face masks made of cloth are now being recommended.

    This could make for a great cottage industry. Triple layered cloth, or cloth that is thicker than handkerchief cloth would be fine.

    I don’t think thin cloth would do the trick. However, anything that helps keep an person’s droplets from going to another person would be fine.

    A friend of mine who is a general surgeon indicated that one droplet carries millions of viruses on it.

    When we are not on the highway, and in 50F weather and above, we keep the car windows open for better ventilation. We also “speak forward” in the car instead of looking at one another when speaking. I don’t know that this helps, but it can’t hurt.

    My friend’s wife is an RN and has a master’s degress in public health, and is a supervisor at a place that serves as a home to elderly patients — but she is away from the patients. So, we are taking whatever precautions we can.

    My friend had N95 masks from 3M, but no longer.

    Please take care of yourselves and do not become paranoid or overly angry with someone who gets to close to you; instead, move away from them if you don’t know them. No need in carrying anger into one’s day.

  4. Submitted by John Ferman on 04/03/2020 - 08:19 pm.

    I have been posting this idea in various places and will try here. The virus molecules are made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and other atoms. These atoms are bound by electron bonds. Such bonds are susceptible to microwaves and if the field is strong enough can be destroyed. So could not a virus contaminated glove, mask be purified in a microwave oven. What is needed is power level setting and time. Some day I’ll take a chunk of fat and microwave until it becomes char.

    Virus experts chime in.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/06/2020 - 05:19 pm.

      Micro wave ovens aren’t even recommended to cook raw meat. It’s not the micro waves, it’s the heat that kills some pathogens. Microwave ovens are NOT sterilizing machines, the heat doesn’t penetrate uneven surfaces in any uniform way, you’re more likely to melt part of the glove while trying to get every ot

  5. Submitted by David Therkelsen on 04/04/2020 - 11:40 pm.

    I appreciated Dr. Drekonja’s common-sense comments about the very brief encounter, on a public pathway outdoors, or even in a hospital. A few weeks ago Sanjay Gupta made similar comments, to the effect that risk in these situations is almost non-existent. We can better focus on methods that truly affect our susceptibility to infection, if we don’t clutter our minds with things that don’t really matter. Dr. Michael Osterholm has made a similar comment about touching one’s face. Avoid it if it makes you feel better, he said, but the evidence that it makes any difference in your risk is very weak.

  6. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 04/05/2020 - 09:59 am.

    I am trying to find out the logic behind closing golf courses. MN is one of the few states that did. So incredibly easy to self distance. Each person takes there own cart. Don’t share the tee box. Pay by credit card in advance on the phone. Flagstick is slightly raised and stays in, ball bounces off of it. No rakes in the bunkers. Get it? Easy to enforce.
    Guess what you get? EXERCISE. And an entire industry gets to make it through this. We have one of the shortest golf seasons in the country. Hey Gov Walz, do you really understand this or are you just tone deaf? And I just heard yesterday he is not allowing maintenance workers on the course. Are you kidding me? Can anybody find out why this is? If it goes to seed this spring there won’t be a season at all.
    I’m beyond stunned. I’m a Golf Professional who is still in Florida and not coming back until courses open. I stay home except for golf, and my club enforces on safe distancing.
    And now I hear no beaches or pools through summer. NO OTHER STATE has gone out 5 months on banning. Why aren’t people complaining?

    • Submitted by Debra Hoffman on 04/05/2020 - 12:19 pm.

      Most people don’t golf but a lot of people like to walk for exercise. Maybe they could let people walk on the golf courses – lots of wide open spaces! Seriously, good luck to you in Florida – probably will be one of the next hot spots.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/06/2020 - 05:28 pm.

      Clubhouses, bathrooms, golf carts, ball washers, flag posts, and the fact that Golf is simply not an essential activity and people who work at golf courses are not essential employees.

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