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.
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.