Personal Sphere of Freedom: The Six-Foot Social Contract
Mayor Bowser called me today (yes, on my phone!) to advise that D.C. is under a stay-at-home order and to limit outings to essential trips. After talking with her – alright, it was really a recorded message sent to all District residents – I read it.
The order includes language stating that one of its intentions is to “preserve a sphere of personal freedom by allowing outside recreational activities under conditions designed to minimize health risks.” Running and other activities are currently allowed provided people practice what we are currently calling social distancing – maintaining six feet of space between yourself and other people while outdoors. In response, city residents are implementing these new rules of movement to protect each other.
I’ve been a regular runner for more than 15 years, and until recently my personal sphere of freedom was constantly brushing against that of others. I focused on a steady line, maintaining place and space, and minimal clearance to pass when gaps in pedestrian flow appeared. Flow like water, slip through as you can. My sphere of personal freedom? Maybe six inches.
Our ways of moving in the city among each other require renewed attention. Today our sphere is clearly defined as six feet from ourselves to our neighbor. Tomorrow the rules may change again and we must continue adapting.
If you’ve ever walked on D.C. sidewalks, it doesn’t take long to figure out that six-foot plus sidewalks are hard to come by. I’ve been trying to estimate as I run, and I’d say four or five feet is the norm in my neighborhood.
While relieved that for now we can still pad around outside close to home, managing this expanded personal bubble in the urban environment initially caused me angst for lots of reasons:
- I’m freaked out about getting sick.
- I worry about my neighbors’ health, I don’t want to endanger them, either.
- I am compelled to go outside because I love it, especially after being inside all day.
- I want to follow the rules and best practices of the moment.
- I’m mad about all the space we’ve conceded to cars, especially because we could use some of it back right now.
- I’m not always the best at learning new things and quickly adapting.
- (Did I tell you that I like to write lists when I’m stressed?)
To ease my anxiety I run at what I consider odd hours. Even then, I am never the only one out. People walk dogs, couples stroll, runners stomp out their workouts, and a few cyclists pass here and there.
Sidewalks have generally not been crowded, but they don’t easily accommodate two people and an adherence to the six-foot rule, either. Every day I go out I see that we are adapting to our new rules and expanded personal spheres.
Most of us take the rules seriously, and we are finding ways to make the present situation work for everyone. We hope six feet is enough.
Initially, some (including myself) looked as social distancing as something that required avoiding eye contact. It felt like a sort of act of rejection to actively watch and move to preserve six feet from myself to another person. Eyes ahead, maybe they won’t notice I’m doing it. Or maybe I AM rejecting them. Maybe THEY are rejecting ME!
The initial sphere of personal freedom brought an additional emotional weight and level of effort to my runs. Maybe that’s how it is when new rules replace the ones we’ve always used. It’s like learning a new social custom – it doesn’t feel natural, and takes time to tune it.
Over the last week or so, I see improvement. We keep reading about how social distancing is one measure to help reduce exposure to COVID-19 so we keep practicing.
While a week ago most of us averted each other’s gaze, our body language is changing. We show heightened awareness of each other’s presence and pace. We move in response to each other, and make the required amount of space to coexist outdoors.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve noticed we are more likely to make eye contact and acknowledge others.
Runners wave. We maintain the six-feet sphere, even if that means jumping onto the grass. Somebody thanked me for hopping momentarily (and safely, by the way) onto the street while he stayed on the sidewalk, and I’ve done the same when others show me this same new courtesy.
The outdoors is not a place I can relax right now, but I still need to spend limited time there. Six feet of separation is the new and weird social contract, a rule we must follow.
The personal sphere of freedom is both totally personal and absolute public good. Nobody wants to get sick, and we have to flatten the curve to not further overwhelm our health system. We rely on each other to make it happen.
P.S. As you can see, I’m using this space as an outlet to help me make sense of this uncertain time. (I also have lighter topics to write about in my queue, too.) Thanks to everyone who gave me book recommendations, I’m working my way through them! Stay safe and healthy, all.