Musings on riding in a time of quarantine, or Why does the club not allow group rides with social distancing?

A little history recap…
Initially when the shelter-in-place order was announced a month ago, everybody other than essential workers was being asked to stay home. This was consonant with the efforts undertaken in Wuhan, Italy, and Spain, which were undergoing much more devastating infection rates and hospitalization. It looked like the US was going to follow in their steps. In Wuhan going out for anything other than essential errands such as grocery shopping was forbidden in an effort to contain the epidemic. Going out to ride a bike recreationally was out of the question. That was/is the case as well in Spain and Italy. Although initially pro cyclists were allowed to ride outdoors in Italy, that is no longer the case. In those three countries this was not a request: it was illegal and police and/or neighborhood watches were there to confront anyone who was out without good reason. That was the background for how the quarantine evolved here in the Bay Area.

In the US where the epidemic is mostly less intense we are allowed to go outdoors to exercise as long as we maintain social distancing. From the beginning solo recreational cycling was included in the list of permissable activities. Social distancing meant no closer than six feet to any individual who was not a member of your household and no physical contact such as shaking hands or hugs. Since then some slight modifications, some of them county-specific, have been added. For example, in San Mateo County people are not to travel more than ten miles from their home [note: original order was no more than five miles]. In most Bay Area counties you are required to have a face mask with you in case you cannot maintain social distancing or when entering businesses. These understandings—unlike in some other countries—are maintained primarily by cooperation with minimal police enforcement, ie. by combination of peer pressure, self-preservation (ie. it’s in my self-interest to comply), and perhaps intellectual agreement (ie. I understand the logic and arguments in favor of disruptive sheltering-in-place and accept them as valid).

A little background…
In early March with COVID-19 increasing and members of the DSSF board feeling increasingly uneasy the decision to cancel club rides was fortuitously made for us by late spring rains washing out rides. Before the shelter-in-place order was announced I (Tony) had already made the decision to cancel my ride for 3/21 but was hoping that rain would make that decision for me. It didn’t, and that was the first ride to be cancelled by the SIP. The board decided that simply cancelling rides through the duration of the order was not only the safest and conservative thing to do but gave us time to see not only how long we would be asked to shelter in place but also how serious the epidemic would become here. It seemed like the right thing to do to comply and cooperate with the shelter in place order. Without a very clear legal understanding but concerned about the health and safety of members the board decided to cancel rides since it seemed the prudent thing to do. Initially the SIP was to last just three weeks and not having club rides for less than a month hardly seemed like a sacrifice. However the SIP has been extended twice, now until the end of May and perhaps it will be again (although with less restrictions?—we shall see.)

In the Bay Area recreational cycling and amateur racing clubs almost universally reacted to the COVID-19 threat and shelter-in-place order just as we did by cancelling their group rides until the quarantine order was lifted. In a survey of local recreational clubs almost all clubs prominently announce this on their websites and the few that don’t nonetheless display empty ride calendars. The exceptions I found were Diablo Cyclists and Eagle Cycling Club. Whether their listed rides actually have been taking place or not I’m not sure. [5/5/20 correction: Although its website doesn’t state it, the Eagle Cycling Club does say on its Facebook page that all club rides are suspended during the Stay At Home order, which prohibits group gatherings. So no club rides for now.]

With a month’s history it’s time to reflect on that decision and think about how the club will get through a prolonged quarantine, one that might last months rather than just a few weeks. We know that the shelter in place order will continue through May at which point we will have lived through 11 weeks of quarantine. And we likely will need to self-quarantine longer. But first let’s look at what the SIP order actuallly says.

What does the SIP order say?
I’m citing the Santa Clara order but it’s almost exactly the same as the orders in the other Bay Area counties.

The SCC Shelter In Place order states, “All individuals currently living within the County are ordered to shelter at their place of residence. They may leave their residence only for Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Functions, Essential Travel,…”

And when leaving your home, “When people need to leave their place of residence for the limited purposes allowed in this Order, they must strictly comply with Social Distancing Requirements…”

and, “All travel, including, but not limited to, travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, or public transit, except Essential Travel, as defined below in Section 13.i, is prohibited.’

Recreational cycling is allowed: “To engage in outdoor recreation activity, including, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, bicycling, and running, in compliance with Social Distancing Requirements…”

Furthermore, “All public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a single household or living unit are prohibited, except for the limited purposes expressly permitted in this Order. Nothing in this Order prohibits members of a single household or living unit from engaging in Essential Travel or Essential Activities together.”

Group activity is explicitly forbidden: “All public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a single household or living unit are prohibited, except for the limited purposes expressly permitted in this Order.” (The exceptions do not include recreational cycling but they include, for example, allowing up to ten people to attend a funeral.)

So, here’s the logic of the SIP order:

  1. We are ordered to shelter in place in our residences.
  2. There are allowable exceptions to leave our residences.
  3. Those exceptions are to do “essential activities”. Going outside the home to do an “essential activity” is “essential travel”
  4. Outdoor recreation such as bicycling is an “essential activity” and thus recreational cycling is a form of “essential travel”.
  5. Whenever we leave the house we are to respect social distancing requirements
  6. The main Social Distancing Requirement is to stay six feet away from others. (And now, have a face covering with you.)
  7. Group activity involving members of more than one household is forbidden except for some very limited exceptions.

The SIP extension, which was just issued for the period extending to the end of May, will keep those sections. Given the continued concern about flattening the curve they were unlikely to change.

As things stand now, in order to comply we cannot offer group activities outside the home and that means no club rides regardless of respecting social distancing. We can offer virtual activities such as club Zwift rides or Zoom gatherings but no physical meetings.

So, that’s the legal bottom line unless the order is emended at a future date. Governor Newsom has laid out four stages for reopening and we are only in the first stage. The second stage will probably include reopening some parks and trails. But before this can happen testing, contact tracing, and PPE supplies will need to be robust. That is projected to be weeks off in the future. So if one were to speculate it seems unlikely that group recreational activities such as club rides will even make it into Stage 2 as a permissible activity. We shall see.

[5/5/20 addendum: Santa Rosa Cycling Club has suspended all club rides because of the SIP order. However despite the order SRCC on its website says, “We take our responsibility to protect public health and the health of our members seriously, especially in light of the older demographic makeup
of our membership so have taken this unprecedented action. The County order allows outdoor activities, including walking, hiking, biking or running, which are healthy and encouraged, and are allowed as long as you practice social distancing. Please ride solo or in SMALL groups and avoid traveling to the ride start (ride from home if you can).” This is the only instance I’ve seen of a club giving tacit approval for group rides as long as they are “small”. Perhaps this is an acknowledgement of the reality that group rides are still taking place and are not going to stop short of police enforcement. So if you’re going to go on a group ride at least make it a small group. However it directly contradicts the conditions of the SIP order, ie. no group gatherings of non-same-household members.]

You may be thinking that a group ride that respects social distancing should pose no threat of propagating the coronavirus. If participants stay at least six feet apart (and probably more when riding), then we stand a very low chance of spreading the virus if a participant is infected. Furthermore, in interacting with others if we stay at least six feet apart, then we stand little chance of infecting or being infected by passersby. On paper that seems reasonable. But real life is messier. In cycling here in the East Bay during the quarantine we’ve run into quite a few group rides not too much to our surprise since there is no enforcement and only people’s cooperation/compliance with the SIP prevents this. We don’t have carabinieri at police checkpoints stopping all traffic. What we’ve seen is disheartening: several group rides in pacelines (and the same club kit no less, showing that it’s a training ride); and loosely organized group rides of five or more where social distancing, particularly at stop lights but also when riding, is nonexistent or sketchy. None of them have had face masks (which is a separate issue). Probably some of these groups started with social distancing but it just fell apart as the ride progressed. In other words, in practice it’s harder to do social distancing even though it seems like it would be easy. That doesn’t even take into account the uncertainty concerning exactly how cyclists should be spaced apart when riding together or when encountering other road/trail users due to the plume of exhaled particles behind each rider.

Another concern is related to ‘herd mentality’. If you see other people doing something, you’re inclined to think that’s it’s okay for you to do it. If we were to see lots of groups rides with little or no social distancing, pretty soon others are going to loosen up on their behavior because they’ll think it’s okay to do so. For example, you see other cyclists running stop signs, so it must be okay for you to run a stop sign since that behavior is now normalized. It ends up eroding the cooperative ethos that the SIP order is based on.

How that behavior appears to non-cyclists is a provocative issue. In the UK cyclists are already being called “covidiots” for riding through small villages, where they don’t want the virus spread, instead of sheltering in place. Cyclists in obvious, visible groups is just another way to incur judgment and antipathy from the public, as if we don’t already have enough. Not that I’m in the “Booker T. Washington” camp of cycling activists, but incurring bad PR is a risky and potentially self-defeating strategy for expanding cycling rights especially when legally we’re not supposed to be offering group activities outside. Apparently this is a real issue in the UK: British Cycling is concerned that if cyclists go out in groups, then the government will ban all outdoor cycling. In other words, obvious non-compliance with the SIP might result in recreational cycling being removed from the list of “essential activities.”

A comment you may hear bandied about is whether or not we should even be out recreational cycling at all since being involved in a bike accident is going to detract from the medical resources needed to fight COVID-19 and just stresses the medical system at a time when resources are limited. I’m personally not persuaded by that argument at least for the Bay Area. If our hospital ERs and ICUs looked like those did in Wuhan or northern Italy or now in NYC, then this would be much more persuasive. But they don’t and it’s looking more and more that they won’t. The part that makes sense is that riding a bike is indeed inherently dangerous either through falls, collisions, or encounters with other road users. I can’t recall the exact figure but years ago I recall reading that a significant percentage of reported bike accidents are single vehicle (eg. cyclist hit a bump and fell off the bike) so that it’s not just collisions with motor vehicles that are a concern. With fewer drivers on the road during the quarantine one would expect car-bike collisions to be lower. When I think back on club accidents or members that have had bike accidents they’re overwhelmingly of the former type, ie. user error. So yes, there is a risk of having an accident and needing a ride to the ER. But during the quarantine we’re supposed to be staying at home and that’s actually the place where most accidents occur. For example, home accidents involving ladders are unfortunately all too common. One could argue that to reduce the load on medical services we should NOT stay at home (or realistically, don’t use ladders)! However if you do have an accident while out riding and you do need to go to the ER, do you want to go to a place where coronavirus is more likely to be concentrated and your chance of exposure is greater? That’s a decision each individual makes since the SIP order is leaving it up to us to decide.

Gaming the system…
Personally I haven’t heard anyone voice this comment yet but I’m sure there are cyclists out there aching for riding companionship who are thinking it: “Well, we could just agree to coincidentally show up at Peet’s on Sunday at 10 am and all just happen to be riding Tib loop!” There is nothing to stop people from contacting friends and agreeing to ride together. As long as it doesn’t get tacit or explicit approval from DSSF, then it’s just individuals making their own decisions. Isn’t that the tactic that Critical Mass takes? ‘No one’ organizes it but everybody knows when and where to show up. It’s not a group ride—it’s a happenstance of individuals who happen to be doing the same thing at the same time and place. How is that different than a crowd at Macy’s on any Sunday? In fact that already is happening: look at the Golden Gate Bridge west sidewalk on a weekend and you’ll see lots of cyclists who just happen to be going to Marin by bike. But seriously, do you want to go there? That’s like going to confession but then arguing you have a loophole so you don’t need to say all those Our Fathers. Either you’re complying with the SIP in word and spirit or you’re not, so don’t try to nuance your way around it. If more and more groups of cyclists are seen rolling about, you can bet that there will be a reaction and it won’t be in our favor.

Based upon what we’ve seen in the past month group rides organized informally outside of clubs are taking place even though that contravenes the spirit and potentially the purpose of the SIP. Is this another instance of exceptionalism, ie. that you’re the exception and the normal rules don’t apply to you? Or is this an instance of “Well, it’s just me and not everybody is doing it” ie. a little bit doesn’t hurt. But that ‘little bit’ soon turns into a lot when people see the erosion of SIP rules. It’s like pissing in the community swimming pool. Yeah, it’s just one person. Until it’s a lot of people. One person’s behavior does affect the behavior of others.

“It’s overkill…”
This is an interesting argument: the vast majority of infections have occurred indoors in confined areas where people either did not or were unable to socially distance, so there is little or no justification for banning group outdoor activities where air circulation is completely different. Regulating indoor crowding makes sense but there is little justification for limiting outdoor behavior, so the argument goes.

That may very well turn out to be true. Oldsters may remember when AIDS hit the scene and sucking dick was thought to be dangerous. It took time for the research to show that the likelihood of getting infected by oral sex was several degrees of magnitude lower than with, say, unprotected anal sex. Perhaps banning outdoor group activities is like oral sex, ie. there are other modes of COVID-19 transmission that we should be paying attention and one of them is NOT outdoor cycling. But we’re not there yet. We don’t know, and as with oral sex back in the day do you want to take the risk and find out you’re wrong? Some research done in China seems to show that the virus spreads primarily through indoor transmission: of 7,324 cases only one was clearly linked to outdoor transmission. If this kind of research is confirmed by other studies, then we may see outdoor activities such as group cycling being allowed with some social distancing conditions. If this happens, we’ll probably see the return of club rides.

Ah, the irony…
There is an amusing contradiction between the ethos of cycling and how we’ve reacted to restrictions on cycling during the epidemic. On the one hand cycling, particularly as propagated by cycling journalists of a racing bent, repeatedly glorifies the suffering aspects of riding. Suffering is not merely be tolerated: it is sought. We should ride hard in order to be faster/fitter/thinner/etc. Suffering and denial are good aspects of cycling, right? But when cyclists are asked or told not to cycle, it becomes intolerable. If we were to view not being able to cycle during the epidemic as just another kind of ‘suffering’, then shouldn’t we embrace the challenge rather than moan so loudly? But denial, I am guessing, especially when it is external rather than internal is just not something we do well with. One hears that for some cyclists it’s their way of maintaining sanity during the epidemic. That may be true. But aren’t there other ways of keeping one’s sanity? Maybe now is the time to explore other options.

If it sounds like I’m chiding those who are rankled by the current restrictions and want group rides right now, I’m actually not. Every comment I’ve mentioned above I have also thought and wished for. So I’m one of Those Who Wish Things Were Different. But being risk averse by predilection I’m not going to personally offer a group ride. That’s my decision. For those of you who are less risk averse (or who don’t perceive there to be any risk) you may come to a different decision. Hopefully the restrictions on group gatherings will be lifted sooner rather than later and we’ll return to a more ‘normal’ way of life.

But the new normal is likely to look a bit different than it did before, and that’s a topic for a future blog post: getting the club ready for when the SIP is lifted.