You may NOT leave your room for solo outdoor exercise…

— UC Berkeley notice to students living in the residence halls, Feb. 8, 2021

…students are required to self-sequester. This precludes leaving your residence hall for a walk.

— UMass Amherst notice to students, Feb. 9, 2021


The approach taken by UC Berkeley and UMass Amherst has been called “coronavirus absolutism.” Stay home, don’t exercise, don’t go outside. I call it over-reacting. Is this a peculiarly American/Puritan all-or-nothing approach to problems? Nancy Reagan’s DARE “Just say no to drugs” campaign; abstinence-only sex education; telling gays to avoid all sex (not just condom-protected sex) during the AIDS epidemic. As David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times last week, “The demonization of sex during the AIDS crisis contributed to more unsafe sex. If all sex is bad, why focus on safe sex?”

A 2009 analysis of 20 controlled studies on enrollment in one of the most popular “Just Say No” programs, DARE, showed no effect on drug use. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia.

We’re good at taking risks, daily: we drive, we cross the street, we eat sugary food and drink wine and beer. Some us climb mountains, ski, kayak in the ocean. Practice unsafe sex. Smoke weed. Especially during these Covid times, our humanness comes to the fore. We’re not robots, we crave connection and intimacy; we want to be in nature, we need to work our lungs and muscles and give ourselves a break from the craziness.

So just how great is the risk of walking or running outside, on your own, without a mask? Some expert opinions:

The small number of cases where outdoor transmission might have occurred were associated with close interactions, particularly extended duration… (Dr. Muge Cevik, infectious-disease specialist, University of St. Andrews, Scotland here)

…the probability of airborne transmission due to respiratory aerosol is very low in outdoor conditions… (Peer-reviewed Italian study published by NIH, 12/8/20)

When you’re outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing these droplets. So you’re less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19 to become infected. (Mayo Clinic)

When the authorities tell us to wear masks in situations where it makes little or no sense—outdoors, solitary walking and running, for instance—it’s worse than useless, it’s counterproductive. Turns out, we’re not that great at wearing them indoors, but at least relaxing the rules outside makes the indoor restrictions more bearable. As Leonhardt noted, “Banning college students from outdoor walks won’t make them stay inside their dorm rooms for weeks on end. But it probably will increase the chances that they surreptitiously gather indoors.”

Having said that, I’m still extra-cautious. Because I’m 78 and suffered a perforated lung last year, I wear a mask outside on streets when people are around, dodge no-maskers, and hold my breath when all else fails. But out in nature with no one around, I just breathe, appreciating the euphoria of inhaling deeply with no mask between my nose and fresh air.


UPDATE: Following up on last week, Perseverance is safe and sound on Mars, having landed in one of the most difficult areas—but also one of the most interesting scientifically. In the image, red represents rocky and potentially disastrous landing areas. Blue, where Perseverance touched down, is safe and relatively flat (she is now sitting with less than a two-degree lean). Fun fact: her last course maneuver took place two months ago, yet was able to land within a mile of the center of her target.

Images: NASA.