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.

Noon on a weekday in DC

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.

Running in the street by Nats Stadium. Go 1-0 every day!

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.


  1. We’re all having to adjust our lifestyle during this pandemic. Although I don’t run, I know exactly what you mean. We must venture outdoors, otherwise we will get claustrophobic, and the loneliness will consume us. We must found all outlets to socialize with friends, family, and our fellow bloggers.

    I pretty much do my outdoor activity early in the morning (like 7 am, but will try to get out there at 6 am), just so that there are less people out there. It’s tough for us all, and we all just have to hang in there, and we will get through this.


  2. We’ve been at this new exercise etiquette for two weeks and we’re mostly doing well, but we have less people using lots of park space. I don’t need to adjust my routine – and I.get out when I want – as I’ve been furloughed (I hope). It was interesting to see a group of 8 runners fall into formation spread out on a sidewalk. I wonder what happens when they encounter a pedestrian.


  3. MG, I appreciate your post.

    What about cycling?

    My buddies, all with risk factors (age, health history), continue to ride outside.

    With our state (MI) now a hotspot, I’ve decided to ride in my garage with doors open. Yeah, my cycling is low risk but I want to make it zero risk so I don’t need a trip to ER just when they’re overwhelmed. It’s going to be really hard, but nothing like what many are going through.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mitch, I agree with you that I feel relatively fortunate about my current circumstances. Cycling outside for exercise is trickier for the reason you mention. I’m not really doing it, actually. Instead, I ride for short transportation trips, like the grocery store. Until work closed doors I rode the office’s Peloton bike 2/3 times per week to help maintain cycling fitness because even without a public health crisis getting in a workout from downtown was more pain than pleasure. Felkerino set up an indoor trainer for me so I’m going to use that for my weekday cycling.


  4. I’ve primarily been a commute/utility/destination-oriented cyclist for years. This change to daily WFH and reduced outlets for commuting and destination riding has meant more time to ride recreationally. So I’ve been exploring local routes and areas I normally don’t visit because they aren’t around any of the places I typically go. Sunrise rides are on nearly empty streets and rural roads (relatively speaking). The pleasure of morning rides in new places several times each week has been great. I’ve also managed to make it to more than ten parks for outdoor lunches although I’m a bit careful around any common spaces, i.e. not afraid to sit in the grass rather than on the bench or at the picnic table.

    This paradigm shift has been tough for me because I am at perfect peace and have enjoyed the changes I’ve encountered while realizing that many are less fortunate in so many ways.



  5. I, too, have decided the risk of recreational cycling is too high. Should I have an accident, it would take precious medical personnel away from the job at hand, not to mention my family would be unable to visit me in the hospital. So, I am using a trainer at home which is hooked up to Zwift. I’m now the one hooked on Zwift.
    For your reading list, MG, I really enjoyed the book “Miles from Nowhere” by Barbara Savage (it’s a global bike odyssey.)


    • I’ve heard of this book… will add it to my list, thanks Lynda! Ed is hooked on Zwift, too! I told him I’m more into entertrainment (I think the Verge used this term) so for now I’m doing Peloton. But might try Zwift too.


  6. Working from home, it’s been easy to get a ride in at lunch. The usual beach-side and the Bay bridge paths are too full of new pedestrians who don’t get the “walk on the right, pass on the left” thing, so those are pretty much out for me now. Just too many close calls. The silver lining is that with traffic way down, I’ve been able to re-explore ends of town that have been too dicey to reach for the past few years. So… riding continues, and the left knee is improving so running will be back on shortly.

    But all the worries you listed are all still there, always, somewhere in the back of mind. Stay smart, stay safe.


    • I agree with you on doing indoor cycling to mix it up! My running right now is more in the interest in going outside and being active, but they don’t exactly have a training bent to them.


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