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Lynn Sweet’s rules of the road for social distancing while walking, running and biking

“You can’t change another person’s behavior. You can only change your own,” said Dr. Melinda Ring, executive director of Northwestern’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

Sidewalk hogs get a warning when you use your arm to create some safe distance and flap it up and down a little.
Photo by Neesa Sweet

A quiz.

Q. You are walking on one side of a sidewalk. Someone strolling toward you veers within six feet of you. You don’t have any room to move but the other person does. You call out through your mask, “Six feet!”

The correct action for that person is:

a. Pretend not to hear and stay the course.

b. Give you the finger and swerve a little.

c. Create some distance by moving away.

The right answer is c.

As some of our COVID-19 pandemic lockdown rules in Illinois are easing and the spring weather is bringing us outside more frequently to walk, run and bike, I’ve been navigating the new normal while social distancing. There is no best practices manual for this.

I’m a speed walker. I aim at five miles a day. As I roam around, I’ve made it a point to observe social or physical distancing behavior — who among us tries to observe the six feet; who doesn’t; and whether lapses appear willful or the result of being oblivious. I’ve become a student of the various tactics people are using and developing some of my own.

Without getting into the heavier political issues associated with wearing masks and social distancing — as President Donald Trump ignores both — I want to share my evolving rules of the road for folks finding themselves sharing the same sidewalks, paths and streets.

In writing this column, I consulted with two specialists at Northwestern University working on “caution fatigue” behavior during this pandemic: Dr. Melinda Ring, executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and her colleague, Jacqueline Gollan, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Asher Center for the Study and Treatment of Depressive Disorders at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

Caution fatigue, Ring said, is a “loss of interest in following the recommended guidelines due to mental or physical exhaustion.”

Gollan told me in an email, “Caution fatigue can influence our ability to comply (with) the new rules. This occurs when people show low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines. We may become impatient with the warnings, or we don’t believe the warnings to be real or relevant (or) we interpret the risk incorrectly. We may stop safety behaviors, like washing our hands and social distancing.”

“Caution fatigue occurs because we become desensitized to warnings or risk. Initially, when we hear pandemic warnings, we become fearful and take action. But being intensely fearful is highly taxing on the brain. We adjust psychologically to reduce the fear and desensitize to the pandemic information.”

And with that, here are the Sweet Outdoor Rules of the Road:

1. It’s on me.

Social distancing is key to avoiding the spread of COVID-19. There are all sorts of persuasion messaging and advertising campaigns ongoing to convince people to stay six feet apart. Yet people don’t. Maybe it’s a spatial dissonance thing? A political statement? Youthful rebellion? Entitlement? Free floating hostility? Ignorance? Doesn’t matter why.

Since I care more than you may do about this six-feet thing, it’s on me to get out of your way.

“In general, what we know is,” Ring said, “you can’t change another person’s behavior. You can only change your own.”

2. Make peace with doing the easiest thing to create the six feet: cross the street, take a turn, whatever. Remember we are living in difficult times.

“We are seeing a rise in depression, anxiety, PTSD,” Ring said. Add to that people struggling with financial and relationship burdens.

3. Maintain situational awareness. Do not stop in the middle of a sidewalk or path to read your email or chat on the phone. Move off the sidewalk or path.

4. It’s also on you.

When you are walking, running or biking behind someone who doesn’t know you are there, it is your responsibility to create the six feet of space. Slow down, which, for heavens sake, is not the end of the world. Please call out something like “on your left” so I can scramble out of your way.

5. End the blockades. Don’t be a sidewalk hog. No, you can’t always walk or run three abreast with a dog if the path is crowded. Single file.

6. Distance shaming can backfire. Reserve calling out “six feet” when there is no alternative.

It “sounds like a mother scolding a kid,” Ring said.

7. Signal. This is for walkers. Sidewalk hogs get a warning when you stick out your arm to create some safe distance and flap it up and down a little. The nonverbal cue is effective in getting folks to fall into single file. Yes, I look a little crazy.

Many folks are great. I zig, they zag, and it works out. Don’t get worked up. Said Ring, “take some deep belly breaths beneath your mask and move on.”