Runners should wear masks, but not because of science

The exercise-induced enmity brought on by the coronavirus exists throughout the country. Twitter and Facebook overflow with animus against the fleet of foot. Tales of in-person scoldings and even screamings abound among a populace split between reproach for irresponsible joggers and sympathy for cooped-up amateur athletes trying to escape the apartment without self-suffocating.

Those in the former group insist that public health officials say to wear facial coverings wherever we go, and that common sense says panting sprinters are spewing particles with more force then their walking brethren. Those in the latter retort that experts suspect outdoor transmission is unlikely, no matter how high your heart rate and how heavy your breathing.

Where you come down on the question may depend largely on a single factor: whether you jog — or, for those who find that language demeaning, whether you run.

Pavement wars predate pandemic, of course. Pedestrians weren’t pitted against pedestrians, but they loathed the on-sidewalk bikers. Bikers who stuck to the road bemoaned the reckless driver; drivers, the heedless biker. Exercise empathy has never been our strong suit, and plain old empathy isn’t always easy either. So now runners consider only the agony of trying to bang out a 10-miler with cloth between lungs and air, and walkers only the pain of squeezing against a fence as someone barrels toward them sputtering droplets.

The way we do things is right. The way others do things is wrong. Usually the gulf between the two is a matter merely of frustration; now it’s also a matter of fear. And for those of us who are told we’re not being careful enough when we’re convinced we’re being very careful indeed, it’s a matter of resentment tinged with guilt.

We never have control over how others act, but right now we feel a painful lack of control over anything. Of course, we want people to live their careful coronavirus lives exactly as we live ours, because seeing our decisions mirrored across the population lets us imagine we’ve wrested back some control.

Our sacrifices, we may also figure, are pointless if those around us refuse to sacrifice, too. Sometimes it’s apples and apples: You’re no longer squeezing every lime in the produce department before you place one in your cart, but that guy over by the herbs just realized the cilantro he was clutching was actually parsley and put it right back where it came from. Sometimes it’s apples and oranges: You’re not running without a mask on, sure, but that’s because you never run at all.

And on the flip side, when we’re accused of selfishness because someone believes we’re not sacrificing something, we think of all the things we have sacrificed, and we bridle.

These reactions are natural, but they don’t leave us anywhere besides in our own heads, where we’ve have been the whole time. They end only in grumpy looks, plenty of umbrage and the lonely sense that no one else understands what we’re going through and what we’re giving up — when, really, we’re all knit together by some version of the same awful thing. So what’s there to do, besides craft a golden rule for the age of covid? Think about others as you’d like others to think about you.

Yes, some are giving the virus the finger as if that will make it go back meekly whence it came, and their insistence on living life as normal is bound to keep life strange longer for everyone else. A man literally pushed a park ranger into a lake in Austin last week as punishment for enforcing social distancing. Family members shot a security guard to death at a Michigan dollar store after he told a woman to put on a state-mandated face covering. But many more are trying to do good, and to be well.

We don’t have control over how others act, but we do have control over how the way we act affects the way others feel. The runners could decide to tie bandannas around their necks, not because science says they’re shedding virus everywhere they go but because it will help set the walkers at ease in uneasy days. The walkers, in turn, could smile instead of scowl at whoever trots by.

There’s a road-rage strategy my mother, inclined toward irritability behind the wheel, half-mocked and half-employed during my childhood: Tell yourself the offending driver — or, yes, biker — isn’t driving poorly because he doesn’t care, but because he’s lost, or older and slower, or he really needs to use the bathroom. Tell yourself (it doesn’t matter if it’s true), “He’s doing the best that he can.”

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