What we do and don’t know about social distancing and biking

BikePGH is sifting through info to answer your questions about social distancing and bicycling. 

What do we know? The World Health Organization has recommended cycling to stay active during the coronavirus crisis.

A statement from the organization said, “While cities around the world are introducing a broad range of measures to limit physical contacts to prevent and slow down the COVID-19 pandemic, many people might still have a need to move around cities to reach their workplaces when possible, meet essential daily needs or provide assistance to vulnerable people.”

“Whenever feasible, consider riding bicycles or walking: this provides physical distancing while helping to meet the minimum requirement for daily physical activity, which may be more difficult due to increased teleworking, and limited access to sport and other recreational activities.’’

But of course information changes daily. This information is current as of May 8, 2020. Make sure you continue to follow local and regional guidelines as they are set forth, since things are still evolving by the day!

1. First off, what does the stay-at-home order mean?

If you live in Allegheny County, you are currently under a “Stay-at-Home Order”. What does that mean? It means that aside from certain life-sustaining activities, you should not leave your home. 

From the Post-Gazette: “Under a stay-at-home order, residents are urged to only leave their homes for things that are considered essential for living, and only while maintaining social distancing. This category of activities includes grocery shopping, exercise, travel to schools for meals or educational materials, and care for family members, seniors and people with disabilities.” 

2. If I have to stay at home, how do I stay active? Can I still exercise outside? 

Absolutely! Exercise is considered an essential activity under the current stay-at-home order. Whether indoors or out, aim to move your body for a period of at least 30 minutes every day, and try to engage in cardio activities (such as biking, brisk walking, or jogging) 3x or more per week. Though no scientific data currently exists regarding the effects of exercise on coronaviruses, experts say it is important that we try to maintain our activity levels within recommended guidelines. Not only can exercise have a positive effect on the cells and molecules of the immune system, but it is also known to counter the negative effects of isolation and confinement stress on various aspects of immunity.

3. Is it safe to run, walk, and ride outside?

Yes, as long as you’re alone or with members of your own household, and maintain proper social distancing while outside. The best plan for riding right now is to go out and ride solo and enjoy the outdoors, in non crowded areas. Try timing your rides for when you know your route will be less crowded, or take the time to explore new back roads and side streets that do not carry a risk of crowding like parks and trails. 

4. How far apart should I be from others when exercising outdoors?

The current guidance issued by the CDC is to maintain six feet of distance between yourself and non-household members. Some countries around the world are using different measures, but there is no formal consensus on how far apart is truly “safe”. 

“Everything is about probability,” said Dr. Harvey Fineberg, who is the head of the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “Three feet is better than nothing. Six feet is better than three feet. At that point, the larger drops have pretty much fallen down. Maybe if you’re out of spitting range, that could be even safer, but six feet is a pretty good number.” 

Still emerging research suggests that even greater distance than 6’ may be required to completely avoid these droplets if a person is in motion and physically exerting themselves by jogging, or moving quickly such as via bike. Bottom line, the further the better. Maintain a minimum six feet of distance when you encounter others while exercising, more if you are able. 

5. What precautions should I take when out for a ride or walk? 

The main and essential precaution to take is maintaining your physical distance from other road or trail users. If you are unable to allow enough physical distance on a given trail or road, consider going elsewhere. Likewise, if you arrive at an area such as a park or popular trail and find it to be crowded, choose somewhere else to exercise!   

Respect others that you encounter while exercising; make sure to allow appropriate room for others to pass you, and give a much wider than usual berth as you are passing. Cyclists should not use the sidewalk to ride, but especially not now if it means pedestrians will be forced into close contact as you pass. (Side note: There’s never been a better time to try on-street riding than right now. With the lack of cars on the road, it’s like OpenStreetsPGH out there!) 

6. Can I go for a socially distanced bike ride/walk with friends?

You shouldn’t, unless they are part of your household. One of the biggest misconceptions about social distancing is that you can still hang out with others as long as you maintain a proper 6 foot distance. However, this is not what experts intend by the term. Think about it like this: being six feet apart from another human being does not create an impenetrable wall between you and the thousands of tiny respiratory droplets they are emitting. Six feet is simply the distance at which most of these droplets fall to the ground – and that’s if the person speaking is stationary! There is no consensus on a magic number or distance that can absolutely keep a person safe. Bottom line, again, is that further is better. You should only utilize the option of seeing friends 6 feet apart if your mental health truly requires it. Ultimately, the safest way to socialize with friends and family right now is digitally from your respective homes.

7. Should I wear a mask while walking or biking in my neighborhood?

It depends. As of April 15 in Pennsylvania, face masks or coverings must be used in any area where you may have trouble social distancing from others, such as at a grocery store, pharmacy or other business. However, if you are not actively coughing and sneezing, know you will be able to maintain physical distance from others, and won’t be entering a place of business, feel free to skip the mask while exercising. Bring one along though, so that if an area you are in becomes crowded you can put it on and continue to safely exercise.

If you are actively coughing or sneezing (or know you are prone to do so – hey, fellow seasonal allergy sufferers!) consider wearing a mask anyway while riding or walking to prevent the spread of your own respiratory droplets. Remember, the point of a non-medical face mask is not to protect you from contracting coronavirus, but to prevent the spread by those who are asymptomatic and may not know they are infectious.

8. Okay, so I need a mask, where can I get one? How can I make my  own?

There are many tutorials floating around now on how to make a homemade mask or face covering. Check out some options here or here. Or, support a local effort, Operation Face Mask! And don’t forget that a cloth face mask is basically like underwear – it should be washed or disinfected after every use!

9. Should I be getting out for some exercise to help my immune system fight off my current illness?

NOPE! If you have symptoms of any illness right now, including COVID-19, you should not leave your home unless you require medical care

10. Got it, so I have a plan for safe riding, BUT my bike needs a tune-up. Are bike shops open??

YES, many bike shops in Pittsburgh are open and running no-contact service repairs. Here is the full list of shops that are open and their hours.

11. What about when we go to Yellow Phase? What will change?

Not too much. Allegheny County is set to move from Red to Yellow on May 15 under the governor’s three phase approach to re-opening Pennsylvania. This means that many non-essential businesses will be able to open, while abiding by strict social distancing and sanitization measures.

Social distancing precautions will still apply, and masks and face coverings are still required at all places of business, as well as in areas where you may have trouble distancing from others. The one exciting change under Yellow is that small gatherings (of no more than 25 people) will be permitted! This means that a bike ride with friends is a great option as you begin to see people again, though you will still have to take extra care and make sure to wear a mask when interacting closely with people outside your household and immediate family.  

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