Photo by Victor J Blue / Getty Images
Photo by Victor J Blue / Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.

Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”

To be clear, every expert I spoke with for this piece told me that it’s still mostly safe to spend time outdoors. If anything, they said, such forays should be encouraged for the sake of our mental health. Distance and ventilation matter, and outdoor spaces offer plenty of both. Distance is harder to maintain in bustling cities like New York, but the point remains that any risk lies in the density of people, not in some thick viral miasma suffusing the air.

That’s the good news. The matter of going outside, however, is just the simplest and most easily resolved part of a larger and more vexing set of questions: Does the coronavirus travel through the air? If so, how can we escape it? Should we all be wearing masks? The details of our new uprooted lives hinge on the answers. And the answers are complicated.

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