What is wrong with Beltway bicyclists?

Is there significant overlap between people on two wheels and the “anti-vaxxer” crowd? A similar disdain for expert opinion or just simple logic?

Perhaps this is a problem with bicyclists everywhere. Certainly bikers, runners and walkers have never been fast friends anywhere in the country. The sung injunction in the musical “Oklahoma!" that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends” has a modern iteration among these outdoor tribes, and certainly bikers and cars have often collided to terrible and tragic consequences as bad as any range war from the previous centuries.

But most bikers and the trundling communities have figured out a detente over the years on the various paths that are open to both.

Now, however, the bicyclists seem monumentally ignorant or stunningly indifferent of their potential capacity to spread the coronavirus, especially to older people who use the paths to get their walks or runs in. In the six weeks since returning to a Beltway rocked by the shutdown, I’ve logged 200 miles on the streets, pedestrian paths and Mall sidewalks, and the growing awareness among pedestrians of the need to wear masks or scarves or a kerchief of some sort has grown dramatically.

It has taken longer for some older folks to “get” that this is about protecting others, but generally I think 3 out of 4 walkers and runners are wearing a face covering.

I’d flip that for the bicycle community, and that’s being generous. This community seems to not understand what “asymptomatic” means.

The science is thus far silent, neither confirming nor denying the risk. Linsey Marr, an “expert in airborne transmission of viral diseases and a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech,” told Wired magazine that the risks posed by cyclists or runners are still unclear. “We need to keep in mind, though, that we don’t yet know what size particles released by an infected person actually contain virus and whether that virus is ‘alive,’ or can still infect others,” Marr said.

To spell out the potential risk: Perfectly healthy-feeling people — athletic, in-shape, feeling-just-fine-thank-you and terrifically fit people — could be super-spreaders of the virus. Like a fertilizer spreader used by your neighbor who is crazy about having a perfect carpet of green grass, a virus-spreading bicyclist could be shedding a cloud of virus carrying droplets, as one doctor — a psychiatrist consulting on covid-related psychosis in the intensive care unit — told me on air Monday.

“They are at exactly the right height to hit everyone they pass,” she said.

I can see uncovered bikers coming at me, so I can do my best to make way and increase distance. But I can’t see them coming from behind me, and a last-second “On your left” warning doesn’t work when it comes to virus risk mitigation. I genuinely don’t mind sharing the right of way or even the unsafe speeds at which many routinely travel. But can’t you just wear a mask or scarf?

To those who say, “That’s sort of a Larry David complaint,” I point them to the savage paths even non-lethal cases of the virus take among thousands of people. There is also a variation of this complaint growing among food shoppers who can’t believe their fellow Americans are strolling up and down store aisles without masks. That “debate” has spilled over on to social media, and the militant “wear the damn mask” folks have been derided as “scold culture.” Not an answer, of course, but another page from the anti-vaxxer playbook: divert and belittle.

Another doc, a kidney specialist, told me that getting this virus is “a hell of a gamble.” If you are in the one of the groups that are known to be vulnerable — older than 65, or obese, or with hypertension or a compromised immune system, or some combo thereof — getting the virus is like a shootout in a classic Western. You might not get hit, and if you get hit, you might not die. But if you get hit, it’s going to cause a lot of pain.

I don’t get it. I’ve taken to running in the street and getting honked at by oncoming cars with drivers pointing to adjacent bike paths. If that’s you, understand that I’m just doing risk assessment and mitigation. At least I can see those cars and adjust. And they are less of a risk than 50 to 100 cyclists zipping by in both directions, 9 out of 10 of whom wear a helmet to protect themselves but not a mask because, well, you know, that’s inconvenient.

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