It is not a very fun time to be a runner in Brooklyn, where I live. This is best evidenced by a sign that’s been going around Twitter that reads, in part: “DEAR JOGGER, PUT ON A FUCKING MASK.” (The sign also manages to get an unfounded dig in at millennials.)
Similar anti-runner sentiments abound on social networks like Next Door, and even in real life interactions. I have seen posts from runners who have been yelled at and from people who have done the yelling themselves. Before you yell at me: I do wear a mask when I run, pretty consistently. But I really don’t want to. In fact, I fucking hate it. I also don’t think it’s necessary!
Whether running with a mask helps stop the spread of the coronavirus is questionable at best. Evidence in favor of widespread mask use by civilians (runners or no) is already limited, though if you’re in a crowded space like a grocery store, it seems like wearing one could help, a little. Outdoor transmission, one expert told my colleague Henry Grabar, is “possible but improbable.” In particular, when you run, you don’t get that close to other people, and most importantly, you don’t stay close to people for that long. It’s really “prolonged close contact” that spreads the virus, as Saskia Popescu, infectious disease epidemiologist, explained to me in an interview last month. Running is the opposite of prolonged close contact. The opportunities for your germs to get on other people are vanishingly small. (And no, you’re not leaving a stream of germs in your wake, that “study” was bullshit.)
And yet, the social imperative is: mask up, even while running. As a Wall Street Journal article titled “Should you wear a mask when exercising outdoors?” concludes, though there’s no scientific reason to wear a mask while running—and in fact, breathing heavily into one might lead to “increased nasal mucus production”—there sure are social reasons to do so. “It’s an act of solidarity and courtesy, letting everyone know you are trying to be respectful, smart and safe,” an emergency medicine doctor told the Journal. (The article also notes that some states now require masks. Gov. Cuomo mandated mid-April that all New York residents wear masks, but this is only when “you cannot or are not maintaining social distancing.”)
Given the lack of good evidence behind runners wearing masks, I can only conclude that people are using runners as scapegoats for the genuine (and understandable) anxiety they feel about going outside right now. It is nerve-wracking living in a city with other humans and their germs! It feels good to take those nerves out on someone. “We’ve reached the irritation phase of this pandemic,” wrote Kelli María Korducki in a recent piece for Medium, which I related to highly. I have felt irritated at all manner of small inconsequential things and actions and people in the past few weeks. It’s hard to sit with the irritation of a life-altering ongoing national meltdown, and also work with your community to manage it. Much easier to blame someone else for fucking up a rule!
But for runners, the cost of following this unscientific social rule of constant masking is kind of high! Having a piece of fabric over your face makes it difficult to do the biologically necessary action of breathing heavily during a cardio workout. It feels a bit like suffocating, in fact. It is especially bad when you’re going up a hill, doing a tempo run or speed workout. But it is also bad and difficult: all of the time. Things are only going to get worse as temperatures rise and we head into a sweaty, masked summer.
So far, the way people are dealing with this discomfort—based on an anecdotal survey of myself, colleagues, people I see on the street, a doctor in the WSJ article—is by pulling the mask up when near people, and then back down again when out of sight. This violates whatever point of mask wearing there was, boiling it down into a performative exercise that is almost certainly not protective and possibly even worse than going barefaced. You are touching whatever germs were contained by the mask, and risk transferring them onto, say, the doorknob of your apartment building when you let yourself back in.
The best thing to do is run at times when there are not many people out: morning, night, cool rainy days (I did go mask-less on one of these recently, it was glorious). Another good thing to do is work hard to maintain the recommended six feet between you and other people, which might mean jumping to the other edge of the sidewalk sometimes (not into the street—the last thing we need is more car injuries). In an ideal world, non-runners on Brooklyn sidewalks would simply also make efforts to distance as we pass them. But what we should not do is continue to allow non-runners to complain and yell at us about a thing that is scientifically fine. Maybe you’ve encountered a few asshole runners, but most people are trying to be respectful, smart, and safe right now. Runners shouldn’t have to convey that by pushing our respiratory systems to the brink of death-by-fabric.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to What Next.