Serving or Self-Serving?

As you know we continued to offer club rides despite the winter CoViD-19 surge and the December statewide Stay-At-Home order. Some board members had a discussion about this prompted by the news that Western Wheelers ceased club rides in early January when Santa Clara County informed them they could no longer have gatherings. You may be wondering the same thing: how could a club like Different Spokes have continued to host club rides, which involve gathering, when all gatherings supposedly had been banned?

A little history: since last March every local cycling club—that I could think of—either explicitly stopped club rides or emptied their ride calendars (leading me to conclude that despite no announcement they too were not hosting rides). In June San Mateo County got a variance from the State that allowed outdoor gatherings up to 50 people. Suddenly group outdoor recreation was now licit in that county. Western Wheelers quickly reactivated club rides just in San Mateo. When Santa Clara also allowed outdoor group recreation, WW, which is based in there, reopened rides in their home county as well. Thereafter other cycling clubs followed suit in their communities. (Some of those clubs were in counties that hadn’t yet allowed group outdoor recreation but some clubs did it anyway.) Several of the larger clubs in the Bay Area reopened—Fremont Freewheelers, Almaden Cycle Touring Club in San Jose, Grizzly Peak Cyclists in Berkeley, Sunnyvale Saratoga Cycling Club. There were also large cycling clubs that didn’t reopen, including Marin Cyclists, Valley Spokesmen in Dublin, Davis Cycling Club, and Sacramento Wheelmen and have continued to eschew group rides. We decided to reopen.

The restart of group cycling was initially prompted by San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties allowing it. But it really gathered steam when the State switched to the State Plan and the color tier system—ie. the State Blueprint For A Safe Economy—to give guidance to all counties. This was helpful because when each county had no choice but to implement its own pandemic plan, we ended up with a confusing patchwork or regulations. The new tier system meant that counties could just adopt the state rules instead. Some Bay Area counties eventually did exactly that including Alameda and Contra Costa whereas others continued to draft their own more restrictive plans such as Santa Clara and San Francisco.

The import of this has to do with (a) what was considered an allowed gathering in a county, and (b) how governmental bodies viewed cycling clubs. Although never explicitly stated, governmental bodies viewed cycling clubs the same as informal social groups unless they had a business license or non-profit status. Clubs without formal legal status were then subject to general restrictions on gathering. But clubs that had legal non-profit status were treated the same as businesses and hence their gatherings were subject to the regulations in the State Blueprint, which devotes the bulk of its attention to which businesses may operate and how they can operate. In other words for clubs that didn’t have some kind of business or non-profit status, their gatherings were treated no differently rulewise than just a group of friends or neighbors who were hanging out together. It didn’t matter if your club had a professional-looking website and snazzy kit: if you hadn’t bother to file for non-profit status (or perhaps your rides were not sponsored by a local bike for-profit cycling business), your club’s rides were no different than a generic gathering and hence subject to all the regulations—e.g. pod size, limited number, limited number of households, etc. Under the December emergency order their gatherings were purely social gatherings and were banned. You’d be surprised how many cycling clubs were in this situation. There was even one local cycling club that subsequently entertained the idea of becoming a religious organization/church in order to offer rides presumably because they didn’t have business or non-profit status.

In late summer and early fall, counties were allowing some social gathering either by requiring social distancing and face coverings, limiting the maximum number who could gather, requiring closed pods, or other such devices. Businesses were also required to do similar things for their patrons and employees, eg. by limiting the number who could enter an indoor business or work in a space. But the regulations for social gatherings and business gatherings were not necessarily the same with the latter spelled out both in the State Blueprint and in specific county regulations (if the county wasn’t following the State plan).

Last summer when non-profit organizations such as Different Spokes, Grizzly Peak Cyclists, or Western Wheelers looked at the State Blueprint For A Safe Economy for guidance, there was no obvious category for us. At that time the only category that even came close was Outdoor Recreation and RV Parks and we, as well as several of our fellow cycling clubs, ended up following those guidelines in terms of how we conduct our club when we’re in counties that have adopted the State Plan. San Francisco County was one of the counties that wrote its own plan and it has never clearly categorized us. The only business category we seemed to fit in is Gyms and Fitness Clubs; I’ve confirmed this with the SF Department of Public Health. One of the compliance requirements to operate in SF is to create and make available to the public a health and safety plan, which we have done. This is no different than for any other business in this category operating in SF. When the December emergency stay-at-home order was announced, all gathering outside of your immediate household was supposed to cease. But ‘gatherings’ such as outdoor fitness classes were still allowed. Why? Because the rules for business ‘gatherings’ were not the same as for purely social gatherings.

So that puts non-profit organizations such as Different Spokes in an interesting situation: our club rides are, in everyday language, certainly social gatherings. But because we are a non-profit organization, San Francisco’s CoViD-19 health orders allowed us to continue offering our “outdoor fitness classes”. We continued to offer club rides legally. But should we have?

Not only does this seem contradictory (but then again many things in the law seem contradictory to us lay folk, who don’t understand how subtle differences are finessed!) but it seems to belie common sense: if you want to stop community spread and you think it’s due to people gathering, then you should stop all gatherings, period. But a critical difference is that the allowed business gatherings are supposedly under the supervision of the business: the fitness club staff (= ride leaders) makes sure that class participants follow appropriate social distancing, masking, etc. There may be no such mandated oversight at informal social gatherings. That seems to be one of the reasons that club rides were and are okay—they’re part of a business practice and supervised according to county or state rules—and not treated like informal social gatherings where anything goes. The concern seems to be that informal social gatherings are major transmission sites because people don’t actually follow best practices for preventing infection. So they have to be squelched. Does that mean that ‘gatherings’ as part of a business operation are therefore safe? No. I’m sure plenty of businesses with ‘no mask, no service’ signs continue to do business with people who don’t or won’t wear a mask. They may not care to enforce the rules for fear of alienating their patrons; have indifferent, ignorant, or fearful staff; or they just need the money. Not too long ago I was in a supermarket where a customer was “blow holing” (had a mask on his face that didn’t cover his nose) and the woman at the bakery counter went about her business to sell him his morning coffee and bagel without ever asking him to cover up properly. At another supermarket I saw a group of employees convening in an aisle and at least two them did not have any masks. (!)

So was our continuing to offer club rides merely self-serving? My normally cynical self leans towards “Of course!” But the leaders of our pandemic rides have been dutiful in enforcing compliance with the club HASP. I had a discussion with the leader of another local club that was grappling with the same issues and we had come to a similar conclusion: people are out riding in groups regardless of the pandemic and many of those groups don’t have masks or other protocols to protect their participants. When people come on our club rides, they’re told exactly what they need to do to ride with us or they have to exit the ride. In that way our club rides are safer than the ad hoc social gatherings we see on two wheels. Think of it as a kind of harm reduction: if you think solo cycling is safe and group cycling unsafe, consider properly supervised group cycling as a lesser evil. Some clubs might be very laissez-faire when it comes to enforcing safety. But if you offer the kind of pandemic rides we do, then it’s hardly evil at all and may in fact be a good as riders internalize safe pandemic riding habits and then consider them “normal”. If the pandemic worsens due to perhaps the new SARS-COV-2 variants, then a real lockdown is surely in our near future—not the ‘lockdown lite’ we keep getting told is a lockdown but something more like what was implemented in Wuhan, Italy, or Spain last spring—and if that is the case then our rides will be shut down for realz. But so will many other businesses that have also been given a pass since the State started reopening last May.