Do Runners Need to Wear Masks?

Do Runners Need to Wear Masks?

Central Park in New York City.

As she attempts to enter or exit the vehicle, a cyclist or a runner will whiz by, so close she can practically smell them. “I scream, ‘Where is your mask?,’” said Ms. Rosen, 73.

Her daughter warned her that these confrontations could end badly. But it feels worth it, she said, because lives are at stake. She’s had about 18 such confrontations. The figure would be higher, she said, if she ventured out more often.

Melissa Mayen, a high school senior in Washington, D.C., had also been avoiding going outside. Then in mid-May, she set out for a ride for the first time in nearly a month.

She was startled when a man, walking across the street, yelled something about a mask. “I almost fell off my bike,” she said. She owns one mask, which her father brought her from a construction site where he works. Aside from the fact that it’s so thick that she can barely breathe in it, she tries to preserve it for higher-risk situations. “If you are yelling at someone to wear a mask, then give them a mask,” she said.

And few activities seem to have incited more debate than exercise: walkers, cyclists, runners, skaters — everyone seems to have contradicting interpretations of the science and etiquette around how to behave outside.

Not necessarily. When cities and states started urging people to wear masks to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, some made exceptions for exercising. Carry a mask, many seemed to say, but if you’re by yourself on an empty street, you don’t have to wear it.

New York City explicitly states that face coverings are not required while walking, running or biking, if you can keep your distance. Likewise, San Francisco has urged runners to carry a mask and put it on when they are near other people.

Since mid-May, Los Angeles has required residents to put on a face covering upon leaving home. But masks are not required while running and biking so long as distance is maintained — though they should be carried, the county and city later clarified.

In Boston, an elevated heart rate is no excuse not to cover your nose and mouth. “You need to be wearing a face covering when you’re out exercising,” Mayor Marty Walsh said in April.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings “where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” but offers no specific guidance on exercising.


Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

It can be really hard to run in a mask.

Many runners are put off by how challenging it is to inhale as their heart rate rises. It can be much more difficult than walking in a mask.

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“It’s harder to breathe, and it’s a lot more clammy,” said Gaston Ly, a store manager at Running Room in Honolulu.

Others forgo one because, even as the virus spreads, masks have not been widely adopted in their communities.

“Oh gosh no!” said Larry Holt, the owner of Ken Combs Running Store in Louisville, Ky., when asked if runners there wore masks. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life.”

(In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear asked residents to begin wearing masks in public on May 11. Like officials elsewhere, he made an exception for people exercising alone.)

Even in Hong Kong, a city so committed to face coverings in public that it has been widely praised as a model, there is little expectation that runners will wear masks, said Brian Woo, a founder of a running group there. “I assume it’s just understood that running is not a time for wearing masks,” he said.

There is no scientific consensus around the importance of wearing a mask while exercising, primarily because so little relevant research has been completed.

Researchers do agree that masks slow the spread of the virus. They also agree that it’s best to avoid exercising within six feet of anyone beyond your immediate household and that working out is less risky outside than inside.

Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who has studied masks’ ability to block respiratory droplets, suggests their value depends on location. “Outdoors is relatively safe, and masks would only be important if you are exercising in crowded areas or indoors in space shared with other people,” he said.

It would most likely occur while you were stopped talking to them, said Julian Tang, a virologist and a professor at the University of Leicester in England. He thinks the risk of infection from quickly passing someone is low, because the “massive air volume will dilute any exhaled virus and the wind may carry it away.”

In April, a draft of a scientific study by Belgian and Dutch engineers indicating that runners, brisk walkers and cyclists create a wake of air behind them that could carry exhaled respiratory droplets much farther than six feet began to circulate online. A widely shared Medium post referring to the research recommended keeping a distance of 32 feet when running or slowly cycling and at least 65 feet — four car-lengths — when cycling quickly.

For a few days, every social media platform seemed to be oozing with the same terrifying graphic: two runners, one spewing a colorful cloud — many interpreted it to be coronavirus — on a man behind him.

  • Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Can I go to the park?

      Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

    • How do I take my temperature?

      Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How do I get tested?

      If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

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The study’s authors soon published a follow-up, noting that their research was just an engineering wind-flow model, which found that when we walk or run, the air moves differently around us than when we are still. Despite telling people not to draw conclusions from their research about how the virus infects people, it had taken on a life of its own.

One useful takeaway, both the study’s authors and several researchers not involved in it said: It’s best to avoid running or biking directly behind someone for a prolonged period.

Stranger sweat is disgusting. But it’s not among the bodily fluids that the C.D.C. warns transmits the coronavirus.

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Credit…Erin McCann/The New York Times


Credit…Erin McCann/The New York Times

Spitting is not only disgusting but also dangerous, as saliva can contain viral droplets. Runners, cyclists, skaters, walkers — don’t do it! (Or at least not around others.)

Avoid popular routes and times, suggests Douglas Nicaragua, the owner of Go Run in Miami. He advises taking a mask, even if you don’t expect to cross paths with anyone. If you see someone, put it on.

“Over time, you’ll get used to it,” said Joey Ta, a competitive endurance athlete in Los Angeles who recently started wearing a mask.

People exercising have used several kinds of masks, some with drawbacks. A surgical mask can easily grow damp and heavy with sweat; so can a cloth one. A bandanna tied around the head may slip more easily when running. Some may even consider a face shield.

Others have used a face gaiter or Buff, a tube of cloth that extends from the collarbone to the ridge of the nose. That’s what Colin Klein, owner of Fleet Feet in Burbank, Calif., recommends.

And whether you wear a mask or not, pay attention to the position of people around you. Dr. Benjamin D. Levine, a professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, is advising the U.S. track and field team on how to train safely. He urges focusing on what he calls the four Ds: “double the distance” from six to 12 feet and “don’t draft,” meaning “don’t run or cycle directly behind someone so you are continually running into and breathing their expired air.”

No. The idea that wearing a mask mimics high-altitude conditions is a myth, Dr. Levine said.

“I don’t understand how people can’t understand that this is about more than just a mask,” said Ms. Rosen, the New York woman who has taken to yelling at runners.

She said her confrontations were driven by a sense of duty to protect not only herself, but also her neighbors.

But is yelling — which may also expel more viral droplets than talking — likely to change behavior? Possibly, said Alexandra Brewis, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and the author of a book on stigma and global health. But she has found that most people are far more likely to take advice from friends and family than from a stranger and to incorporate feedback delivered with empathy, not shame.