The threat of coronavirus has grounded Matthew Sand, a fifty-something Hollywood writer and veteran climber, living near Los Angeles. Snow lingers in the Sierra Nevadas, Joshua Tree National Park, and Yosemite remain closed to the public. Sand affixed a bunch of holds to a “janky” 10-foot platform in his yard, where he works out solo. “I don’t know anybody climbing in the backcountry,” he says.
“It’s scary as hell,” Sand continues. “Climbing is a big part of my life. When I was 25, and it held a different space in my head, I can’t say what I would have done.”
If the drops [containing the virus] are invisible, how can we protect our gear and clothing?
In our pandemic climate, Sand stands far from alone in his uncertainty over navigating this new territory. Daily headlines suggest just how much is left to learn about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and how it spreads. As of Easter, COVID-19 had killed more than 22,000 people in the United States, nearly a fifth of the world’s known fatalities. Yet, diagnostic symptoms are inconsistent. Some victims develop a cough and fever. Diarrhea, shortness of breath, aches, and pneumonia can ensue — but not always. Some lose their sense of smell and taste. Carriers with no symptoms at all remain a radical concern worldwide.
Questions surrounding transmission will continue to nag our waking hours until there is a cure, vaccine, or communities worldwide achieve herd immunity, which could take years. That’s the main reason grocery shopping now requires sensible people to dress like bank robbers (face masks, y’all). It underscores why Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist, who for now remains the voice of reason on the White House coronavirus task force, told the Wall Street Journal: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again.”
Yet, in the age of social distancing, it seems almost everybody is unified that outdoor activities remain critical for not just our physical health, but for our mental wellbeing. Despite any number of state and national parks under lock and key, homebound Americans have embraced open-air recreation in droves. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national advocacy group that has transformed 23,000 miles of abandoned railway beds into paths for cyclists and pedestrians, this past month, some spots saw use increase as much as 200 percent over March 2019.
In communities where stay-at-home lockdowns have not yet reached public parks, crowding frequently makes it next to impossible to maintain the 6-feet of safe space physicians and public-health advocates argue will stem the spread of COVID-19.
If it weren’t so dire, it would be pretty amusing to witness clots of runners dancing through the grass to avoid walkers, while cyclists report holding their breath while attempting to overtake families in the vain hope that this will keep them safe.
Belgian bicyclist and civic engineer PhD Bert Blocken, a professor in the Netherlands, waded right into the intersection of conflicting information earlier this month. As a respiratory illness COVID-19 can be broadly transmitted by microscopic globules of spit (again: face masks). A specialist in urban environments, who has studied pollution dispersal patterns and peloton drafting patterns, Blocken issued a report he conducted on the aerodynamics of how aerosol droplets behave in wind tunnels to suggest social distancing models for runners and cyclists. His conclusion was that six feet is fine if everybody is standing still. But running or cycling means a tail of aerosol droplets far longer than that.
Next, an article on the study appeared in a local paper, and the Belgian national media picked up the story. Soon, a self-styled fitness guru on the platform Medium concluded that runners and cyclist needed 30 feet of space between them to stay safe. The article, which Blocken only saw after the fact, went viral on social media. Like that, the researcher realized he needed to make a quick pivot.
“I’m not a virologist,” he told Adventure Journal over Easter weekend. “I don’t say anything about infection. This is just about the aerodynamics in a wind tunnel.”
“Outside, you will only get something similar if the air is completely still,” he continues. A cross breeze can easily disperse respiratory droplets, rending them virtually harmless. “Our conclusion was just to avoid being in the slipstream [of a cyclist or runner] too much.“
In other words, you don’t have to sprint across the street when you come upon another runner, or cut a switchback to avoid contact with other hikers. Don’t ride in a pack, but don’t freak out about passing other users on a narrow path either.
Meanwhile, with the dawning of spring, the normalcy of car-pooling to the trailhead or hitting the gym likely remains months away. It follows that athletes are also grappling with the personal and public-health effects surrounding how long the virus can persist, as its carried in unseen, microscopic bits of moisture expressed in a sneeze, cough or just a simple exhalation.
If the drops are invisible, how can we protect our gear and clothing? Fortunately, emergent guidelines provide gear junkies, including climbers, runners and cyclists of all stripes, fly-fishers, as well as skiers and snowboarders – after a hastily shuttered season – advice on avoiding exposure from impervious surfaces, such as plastics, metals, and high-tech fabrics.
Registered nurse Lauren Bryan is the infection prevention specialist at the UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Bryan is also a downhill skier, facing a long mud season. “We do have it in the community,” Bryan says. “A lot of mountain towns have been hit harder. We’re not overwhelmed.” Similar to rubbing your eyes or touching your face, Bryan says, a casual behavior like using your teeth to remove a glove could leave you susceptible to COVID-19. “I’ll just say washing your hands five times a day is woefully inadequate,” she cautions.
Back in February, early in the pandemic, the Journal of Hospital Infection published a study showing similar viruses “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass, or plastic for up to 9 days,” and in March the New England Journal of Medicine reported SARS-CoV-2 can live 72 hours on plastics, and 48 hours on metal. Because person-to-person transmission is most common, Bryan is quick to remind athletes and travelers that the risk of contagion is highest with shared gear. “It’s really only an issue if you have other people touching your equipment,” she says.
Just as hand washing with soap and water can be a great first line of defense when it comes to environmental exposure to COVID-19 from door knobs and credit card machines, Bryan says that a sudsy bath, good rinse, or alcohol-based cleaners followed by air-drying items of concern should work to disinfect hard goods, such as bicycles, skis or sunglasses. Outerwear and apparel washed on a warm cycle and either dried automatically or on the line for a day or two should inactivate not just the virus but other potential infections, including harder-to-kill, unrelated bacteria. Epidemiological studies show that gloves and scarves are some of our dirtiest gear.
Though a spokesperson from REI was not available to directly address how best to clean high-tech fabrics beyond what’s on specific care labels, an email from the company made it clear that bleach solutions should be avoided at all costs. Commercially available Clear Gear spray is among the products recently endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for disinfecting non-porous surfaces.
“The more you use harsh disinfecting agents, the more it breaks down [the underlying material] so you don’t want to overdo it,” Bryan says. Even in the best of times, she adds, it’s best not to leave gear in damp, dark environs where germs proliferate. Even so, coronavirus won’t survive till next winter on your snow gear. “If I handle something that somebody else handled, that’s when I’d have to worry.”
Recently, Dr. Cliff Watts, a retired ER doctor and avid angler based in Boulder, spoke with Angling Trade, a national publication about the fly-fishing business. “The actual viral load decreases rapidly on most of these surfaces,” Watts told editor Kirk Deeter. “The facts and science change daily. I do believe soaking anything in 91% isopropyl alcohol or 80% ethanol (real moonshine) for 1 minute would kill any virus on a fly or tippet materials, but this might affect those materials. Letting any of these fishing materials just sit for 72 hours, should certainly make them virus free. I would not hold fresh flies or tippets with your lips until you do so.”
A sudsy bath, good rinse, or alcohol-based cleaners followed by air-drying items of concern should work to disinfect hard goods, such as bicycles, skis or sunglasses.
In the angling-adjacent world of boating, the Life Jacket Association and US Coast Guard have issued COVID-19 alerts for safely cleaning and storing personal flotation devices. Noting that the virus can be detected on clothing for three days, and longer on porous surfaces in some cases, LJA recommends using a sponge, and hand washing with warm soapy water, then rinsing with fresh water, and allowing to air dry in a warm environment, but not using applied heat — which can damage materials.
For zippers, Velcro fasteners and buckles, a spray wash with an alcohol-based cleaner, they say, helps sanitize hard to reach spots. If no washing station is available, drying shared nautical items for 72 hours can offer adequate disinfection.
In response to the pandemic, the Massachusetts-based manufacturers of popular Maxim Ropes, Teufelberger, dusted off a 2015 study that explored – and encouraged – the occasional disinfection of climbing ropes. Noting that fresh-air climbers – can you say dirtbag? – tend to be less rigorous than climbing gyms when it comes to cleaning gear, the company came up with a non-caustic solution of 70 percent isopropanol alcohol and 30 percent distilled water, which should be used to bath ropes for three minutes. Then, just like PFDs and snow apparel, allow the ropes to fully air dry, away from direct heat or direct sun, to ensure their integrity.
“Ropes do provide an organic substrate,” notes nurse Bryan. “Even post-COVID, you need to remember these are the places where pathogens can linger.”
Top photo: Victor Xok