People Are Calling Out Runners Who Aren’t Wearing Masks. When Do They Actually Need to Wear One?

Coronavirus 2020

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The internet and social media have been alight with debate over whether runners and cyclists need to wear masks when outdoors. (Just search “masks” and “runners” on Twitter.) It’s an especially pressing question in Washington as the weather gets warmer and trails and sidewalks begin to teem with people escaping their homes.

A big part of the confusion is that there aren’t any official guidelines when it comes to wearing a mask and running. While the CDC recommends wearing a cloth face mask when out in public places such as a pharmacy or grocery store, it doesn’t address outdoor exercise.

That confusion extends to local regulations, too. While it’s mandatory for DC residents to wear masks in a grocery store or a ride-share, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office hasn’t released any mask guidelines that pertain to runners. (The city guidelines do, however, encourage folks to maintain social distancing when exercising outside.)

In lieu of official rules, some DC residents have taken policing into their own hands. Recently, a series of notes popped up around the city imploring joggers to wear masks, and some people have started to call others out online or in person for not wearing them when exercising outside. (Scroll through the replies to that PoPville tweet to see the debate play out virtually.)

But Covid-shaming aside, is there scientific proof that it’s necessary for runners to wear masks to reduce the spread of the virus?

That depends, says infectious-disease specialist Dr. Rohit Modak. The general rule of thumb via the CDC is to stay six feet away from people. So if you can guarantee that you’ll stay that distance from others at all times during your bike ride or jog, you’re probably fine. But we don’t live in a remote area where that’s likely to happen, says Modak, especially as the trails and sidewalks get more crowded.

“My concern is that we really can’t stay more than six feet away from people, no matter what our best intentions are,” he says of the situation in the city. “How can you ever go out and really think you’re going to be alone? People are everywhere.” 

So if you’re going for a run through Rock Creek Park or along the C&O Canal on a nice day and it’s packed? Then yes, you probably need to wear a cloth mask based on Modak’s recommendations, as you’ll likely be near a lot of people. If you live in the Virginia countryside? You probably don’t need to wear one.

“It’s just a matter of odds and statistics,” says infectious-disease specialist Dr. Donald Poretz of determining when a mask in necessary. “The closer you are to multiple people, the greater the chance you could come into contact [with the virus].”

There’s probably only a slim likelihood of passing along or contracting the virus in the brief seconds you’re running past someone who’s closer to you than six feet, says Poretz. But statistically speaking, it’s not impossible—hence the mask. “In all honesty, the chances are small,” he says. “But you can never say zero. And that’s what makes it so difficult.”

Discussions about health precautions become especially contentious when uncertainty and fear are thrown into the mix. Then it becomes an emotional issue, says Poretz, as evidenced by people who yell at unmasked joggers: “There are so many views out there, and this is so hotly disputed. People don’t want to be told what to do.”

But rather than let it become so emotional, Poretz implores people to examine the issue rationally and on an individual basis: “Depending on where you are, who you’re with, what part of the country you’re in, the incidence of Covid where you are—it depends on so many variables. It depends on the situation, and one should use common sense.”

Okay, so what if you’re running in a public area but have respiratory issues that make it hard to run with a mask? Modak recommends that you find an isolated route where you won’t come into contact with people or that you run early in the morning, if you can. But you should still carry a mask in your pocket, he says, in case you happen to come into close proximity to someone along the way. (Don’t worry—even if you sweat into the mask and it gets wet, you probably won’t develop any infections or irritations, says Modak.)

And, no, if you’re panting heavily and breathing hard, you likely won’t project potentially harmful droplets far distances, says Modak. The same goes for the airstream debate raised by that viral Belgian simulation that was debunked by Vice, he says: “I would really focus on maintaining social distance and wearing a mask when within six feet. I think that is going to be enough to protect you.”

Exercise aside, as discussions turn to what a Phase One reopening would look like for the Washington area, Modak implores people to stay the proper distance from one another, wash their hands, and use masks when in busy areas. “Now is not the time to take a relaxed approach,” he says. “We need to still be very aware of the situation.”

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.