Physical Separation Etiquette in the Time of COVID-19: Walking in the Park

There’s a large park near me. And so I’m fortunate, along with many others in the area, to be able to go out for a walk every day (or just about). And people are, generally speaking, very conscious of the need for physical separation. This park makes it easy most of the time, since its paths are wide — they meet the six feet/two metre distance requirement. And more people than usual are still smiling, nodding or saying hello as they walk by, or so it seems to me. But inevitably, not everybody seems to realize how easy it is to accommodate one another. So, a short primer on the etiquette that makes physical separation easier might be helpful.

“Etiquette” is different from the “rules” we’re meant to live by these days: it shouldn’t be rigid, but it is intended to make life more comfortable and easier. I start with a couple of general guidelines that making walking or running through the park or on roads without sidewalks easier for everyone all the time. To get to the park near me, I go down a street with a sidewalk (here someone needs to walk out into the road if we intend to observe two metres and people do) onto a road with no sidewalks.

When I was a kid we learned a little rhyme to remember to “walk facing traffic all the while”. We wouldn’t use this rhyme today (or for many years now), but its imagery was effective. Following it means you will see the traffic coming towards you as it comes. Too bad that many people never learned this guideline or a reasonable facsimile or have forgotten, because many people, it seems to me, walk in the same direction as traffic.

Now, let’s step away from the road into the park. The guideline changes and whatever signs there are indicate we should stay to the right.

These guidelines are pretty simple, really, although granted they make shifting gears as you move from road to park necessary. They make walking and running even in the best of times that much easier. No guessing about moving to avoid the person coming towards you on the “wrong” side.

Back to the time of COVID-19. Right now, there are not many people walking in the park. I expect this will change as the weather warms up and we have more bright sunny days. As of today, park amenities have been “locked down”. In the next few days, I imagine we’ll see more playgrounds, dog parks and so on with fencing or just “caution” tape around with notices to “STAY OUT”. And this has happened because people have used these spots to congregate rather than maintain physical distancing. So as more people crowd the green areas, still open, the risk that they will not respect physical distancing will become greater. Perhaps, realistically, it will become impossible, but let’s not assume we will get to that.

SO HERE’S A PROPOSAL FOR PARK WALKING ETIQUETTE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

  • Try to keep to the appropriate side of the road, if there aren’t sidewalks or to the right side of the path;
  • as you approach another person, make it clear you intend to keep your distance; if necessary, that might mean stepping off the path if it’s not very wide and if that’s possible;
  • walk over to the other side of the path if someone is sitting on a bench near the park;
  • don’t go up to someone with a dog because you want to talk about or pet the dog (this probably breaks the physical distancing rule, anyway);
  • don’t stand in the middle of the path;
  • if you happen to meet friends and want to talk, step off to the side of the path, if you can, and keep six feet from each other while you chat (and if you can’t, perhaps accept you just need to phone each other);
  • make sure your kids understand the need for distance (and kids from different families shouldn’t be out together), whether they are with you or not;
  • if you’re on a bike, remember people may be moving about more often than usual;
  • AND BE FRIENDLY AS YOU PASS OR MOVE TO LET SOMEONE GO BY!

Everything on my etiquette list is based on a real situation, all of which could be avoided and even if not “wrong” means someone isn’t quite as responsive to those around them as they could be. Here are a few examples of when people, not callously, possibly carelessly, maybe inconsiderately, have made physical distancing just that little bit more difficult to satisfy.

  • four kids, around 10 or 12, skateboarding together. We know kids are not immune from the coronavirus, although they may not be as susceptible as older people to its effects. Kids have died, though, and they are carriers. So, apart from almost knocking down a toddler who started wondering into the middle of the path, these kids, especially if they were “just” friends, should not have been speeding along and taking up the path.
  • ahead of me I could see a little group standing in the middle of the path with their dogs. I did not reach them, but a fellow on the other side had passed them. He exclaimed, “and then there’s the dog convention back there“.
  • overheard passing two people who were obviously friends, one with a dog: dogless friend says, “I read that the problem with walking dogs is people come up to pet them and don’t keep social distance“. Next day, of course: I pass a couple with a dog when a guy walks right up to them to talk about the dog.
  • walking along the path, I see two people standing at the side of the path when it would be easy to step off onto a grassy area; obviously, they were with their kids who had taken off for a point of interest nearby. The two of them had put their bikes off the path, but stood there themselves, making it a bit more difficult when two people walking in opposite directions both came close to them.
  • the park is a favourite of cyclists who, unbeknownst to the rest of us, have rented it for their practice sessions as they prepare for the Tour de France (okay, this ticks me off at the best of times!). Not unusual for them to whoosh past without any warning. The other day, walking along a path, I make sure I step over to the other side when someone is sitting on a bench next to where I would be walking. Just as I turn back to the right side of the path, before I could see behind me, a speedster races past. Not ideal.
  • Back to the road without pavements. Two people walking towards me on the same side as the traffic. I’m walking facing traffic. It’s obvious they don’t plan on moving, so with a quick look behind me, I make sure there’s nothing or no one behind me and go out into the road (other way not really feasible) — just then a car comes up behind me and one is coming the other way. So we have a little conglomeration of two people, me and two cars uneasily close to each other.

None of these situations is major. But they all happened when there were not many people out taking the air. The park paths will get busier and, as I said above, perhaps we’ll be prevented from enjoying our brief respites in one of Toronto’s wonderful green spaces if the pandemic gets worse — or if people, as they did with the playgrounds, don’t take care in using the parks’ green areas.

So the “etiquette of park walking” (or running or cycling) is thoughtfulness that is considerate of how everyone is trying to do the right thing: the physical distancing that is crucial to keeping ourselves and others free from the virus as best we can. It makes it easier for all of to do that. Of course, we all forget or are distracted, but the reality is in this time of COVID-19, walking in the park may take a little more thought than it usually does. We owe it to each other.

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