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UIC infectious disease chief: It’s safe to walk, bike with non-household members

Photo: John Greenfield

Today is the two-month anniversary of Illinois' Stay at Home order kicking in, and and the days are growing long, sunny and warm. A wide range of pedestrian and cyclist behavior can be observed on Chicago’s sidewalks and streets.

Many people walking, running, and biking are wearing masks at all times and diligently sticking to the Centers for Disease Controls-recommended six-feet-plus of social distance from others, even if narrow sidewalks force them to step into the parkway, or walk or jog in the street. Some wear masks without adhering to social distancing. Some practice social distancing sans mask. And there’s the occasional person who does none of the above.

Friends and neighbors can be seen conversing at a distance from porches to sidewalks, or over fences, with or without masks. Others avoid the outdoors as much as possible, defining essential trips exclusively as runs to the grocery, doctor or pharmacy, even though the Stay at Home rules specify that walking, running, and biking for exercise and fresh air are also essential. Exactly what constitutes safe outdoor public behavior during the pandemic seems a bit unclear and -- for better or for worse -- seems to be dictated by personal opinion or comfort.

In a tweet post last week, the Active Transportation Alliance urged Chicagoans to help fight the spread of COVID-19 by "Limit[ing] walking and biking trips to solo ventures or with a member of your household." It wasn't clear exactly where they were basing their assertion that it's unsafe to take a socially-distanced walk, run, or bike ride with a non-household friend or relative, so we decided to dig a little deeper into the topic.

Active Trans spokesperson Kyle Whitehead said the graphic in the tweet was co-developed with the Cook County Department of Public Health using information from the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the CDC. He deferred to public health experts for further comment.

A representative at the Illinois Department of Public Health directed me to Governor J.B. Pritzker's most recent COVID-19 executive order, issued on April 30. These reiterate that "walking, hiking, running, and biking" are essential and permitted activities, "provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements." Relevant requirements to the question at hand mentioned in the document are "maintaining at least six-foot social distancing from other individuals" and wearing a mask or face covering "when in a public place and unable to maintain a six-foot social distance." In short, there's no mention of whether it's OK to go for a socially-distanced excursion with someone you don't live with.

After we reviewed these passages, the IDPH representative said, “If you’re outside with a member of your household, you’re fine.” Well, yes, if you're sitting on the couch right next to a household member watching TV, you're also fine.

I asked if meeting a non-household friend or family member outside for a walk or bike ride while following the social distancing guidelines was also acceptable. The IDPH rep said he didn’t think so.

When I sent the question to the state media contact for COVID matters, they directed to contact the city of Chicago, which regulates outdoor activities within the city.

So I dialed the Chicago Department of Public Health. Calls regarding COVID-19 are directed to 311. The friendly operator I spoke with said without hesitation that walks, bike rides and runs with people outside the household are fine, so long as CDC guidelines are followed. “We’re not in a total lockdown,” she said. “Just be safe, do what you’re comfortable with, keep distance.”

With two very different answers from our local and regional health departments, I next reached out to Dr. Richard Novak, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Illinois Chicago. Dr. Novak returned my call shortly after appearing on Governor Pritzker’s May 19th coronavirus briefing, during which he and Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director for Infection Prevention and Control at University of Chicago, emphasized the importance of wearing masks as Illinois moves into the next phase of reopening, starting May 29.

When I told Dr. Novak about the contradictory responses I received from the two agencies he said, “The reason you’re getting different answers is because there’s no right answer. We know masks work and are most effective at keeping you from infecting someone else. If both people are wearing masks the chance of infection is quite low. Outside, where there’s air movement, should a droplet escape your mask, the likelihood it would reach someone else and get beneath their mask is lower. The most important message is that people wear masks.” That principal was at the heart of the briefing earlier that day, during which Dr. Landon said that wearing masks will become as familiar as wearing pants every time we leave the house.

I asked Dr. Novak if walks, runs, and bike rides outdoors with people you don't live with are safe if all parties wear masks and keep six feet apart. “I think it would be safe if you socially distance,” he replied. “I’m an avid biker, and when I’m out riding I wear a bandana over my nose and mouth. But I see less than half the people out there doing it.”

“We need to be sensible,” Novak added. “Rather than think about when it will end, we need to think of this as the new normal until we have a vaccine or cure, and [consider] how do we live our lives until that happens.”

I double-checked on whether the doctor feels life in that new normal, with masks and social distancing, includes spending time in person with non-household member. “I believe it does,” he said. “We’re ten days away from moving into Phase 3 [of reopening], and people will be able to gather in groups of ten or less. As long as you socially distance with a mask, you can be with friends and family.”

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