Yes, It’s (Probably) Safe to Keep Going on Walks Outside

Just don’t stroll down the sidewalk arm in arm.

walking feet

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boonchai wedmakawand

It’s the MBTA’s fault I walk everywhere. When I first moved to the Boston area, I lived in the T station-free Union Square neighborhood of Somerville, and hard as it is to believe, there was no car sharing service at the time. The T has abundant busing serving that neighborhood, but buses unfortunately do not run quite as often as I needed.

As a result, I walk everywhere. Why wait 27 minutes in the frigid cold for a bus instead of just powering forward and building up a head of steam on a nice walk, I’ve learned to tell myself. In a city as small geographically as Boston is, putting one foot in front of the other is surprisingly effective at getting you from point A to B. But even apart from the convenience, I found I loved it. I’m a person whose brain is generally spinning so hard that you can probably smell smoke coming from it. Power walking as fast as humanly possible on the way home from work, or a concert, or a bar, or really anywhere at all, provides a great opportunity for me to burn off some of that excess mental energy. But what am I supposed to do when my favorite form of stress relief involves the one big verboten activity of the pandemic era—leaving the house?

What I mean, of course, is that with the city shutdown, it feels like virtually everyone in Cambridge is outside walking. I am no longer one of just a very few people interested in patrolling the sidewalks during commuting hours. And with my well-developed tendency toward anxious germaphobe, I can’t help but police them. That couple holding hands? They better live together. Those two men standing outside my building, talking and laughing? They are nowhere near the public health-mandated six feet apart. And the parks! Jam-packed with people, tossing balls, chatting to each other at varying distances, and playing with their dogs. And then those dogs touch other dogs and transfer germs back to their owners. One time when I was out and about, a woman coughed while she was still twenty feet away from me, and I became convinced that some kind of droplet cloud was hanging around her as I approached. If someone walks down the center of the sidewalk towards me, I fly out into the street, saved by the fact that there are no cars because no one has anywhere to drive right now. My favorite way to self-soothe—going for a good walk—is fast becoming drenched in the same thick coating of anxiety that everything else is imbued with.

I’m hardly the only one who’s getting a little worried about outdoor overcrowding, as bizarre as that concept sounds. Malden has closed its city parks. Somerville shut down its playgrounds and athletic areas. Should I be concerned about crossing paths with my fellow walkers? I needed answers.

Unnerved, I spoke to the chief of the infectious disease division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, whose response to my panicky questions could perhaps best be described as “bemused.” At one point, he told me, “I don’t think there’s a real concern,” which could sum up many of his answers to my questions, foremost among them being: Are COVID-19 droplets melding with oxygen molecules in the air outside from all the people exhaling on their walks? My anxiety is probably familiar to many people reading this, so you may be as relieved as I was to hear that unless you’re looking at “a couple hundred people gathered at the same time,” Kuritzkes says, you’re probably fine. To be clear: that doesn’t mean zero risk—researchers suspect that the outdoor Mardi Gras gathering in New Orleans may have been responsible for the spread of the virus in Louisiana. But since the likelihood of any of us going to a Mardi Gras-sized party right now is pretty much slim to none, it’s just our parks and sidewalks where we can inadvertently run into people. Luckily, walking behind somebody or beside them isn’t too risky, says Kuritzkes, who also didn’t seem to think that changing your clothes after returning from a walk was necessary. There’s a higher risk from riding a packed elevator, he added, than there is from walking near people outdoors.

At the same time, Kuritzkes did have a few suggestions of activities to avoid, noting that you shouldn’t toss any kind of ball around with anyone you don’t live with. And Governor Charlie Baker has expressed some concerns about park crowding in recent days, although he hasn’t taken the step yet of trying to close them. The truth is that no one wants to see parks closed—as Kuritzkes put it, they help us “relieve the tedium and pressure of being cooped up indoors.” We’re all on edge, and fresh air is one of the few options left to us to seek a little comfort and a change of scenery.

The same day I spoke to Kuritzkes, I went out for my usual post-work walk. Maybe it’s been a gradual progression all along, but the sidewalks were a little less crowded than I remembered even the day before. Does this mean my walk was any calmer? Reader, it does not. As it turns out, panicking about other pedestrians is just one small ingredient in the bouillabaisse of my current fears. Sometimes when I walk, I cannot get over the freshness of the air. It’s almost like it’s made up of more oxygen than the air inside my apartment. And sometimes when I walk, I cannot stop thinking, over and over again, about the pandemic. The health care workers, the packed hospitals, the essential workers still leaving home every day, the people my own age who are being hospitalized. It is a psychic weight on all of us, and from that the Kuritzkes of the world can’t save me. But I’m lucky enough to live in a four-person building, and I’m a diligent hand washer. So at least for now, I’m going to keep walking.