Opinion: It’s Time For Chicago Race Organizers To Issue a Mask Mandate

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The Shamrock Shuffle, Chicago’s premier Spring road race, announced it will be a virtual race in March 2021. Chicago Event Management (CEM), the race’s organizers, are offering a training program leading up to the race. Runners who register for the race can log miles over eight weeks and qualify for swag. Race organizers are also encouraging runners to “follow guidance from local government and public health officials.”

The statement, similar to those found in most race guidelines and rules, is not an endorsement of running masked. There is no mention of Covid-19 or even what the guidance is.

CEM’s and other race organizers’ opacity on mask-wearing is out of step with the growing call for a national mask mandate. With more than 400,000 COVID-19 cases in Cook County, a new, more virulent virus strain spreading across the nation, and a recent study projecting a half million deaths in the U.S. by the end of February, it is time for CEM and other race organizers to take a stand. Although they cannot mandate masks for virtual races and training, organizers should advocate for mask wearing among running groups and runners in heavily populated areas, like Chicago.

Recent studies suggest mask-wearing does not affect performance or pose additional health risks to those who exercise regularly. Galen Rupp, America’s top marathoner, won the 2011 U.S. Track and Field 10K while wearing a mask for nearly the entire race to alleviate his allergies.

Comfort and practicality aside, the research on outdoor viral transmission is not as conclusive as that for indoor transmission. It is hard to measure risks outdoors without putting people purposely at risk. The dearth of data is not a reason to ignore the potential risks. In a city like Chicago, runners share park paths with other runners, cyclists, walkers, skaters, dog walkers, and more. Many people run in groups, sometimes of up to ten or fifteen, in two lines, side by side. Whether in groups or running alone, it’s hard, if not impossible, to avoid rubbing shoulders while on the paths.

The author, Christopher Worthman, in a past race

Masks protect you and others from spewing out and breathing in aerosols and droplets, lessening the exposure to Covid-19, regardless of where you are. Those aerosols and droplets tend to hang in the air. Working out, which usually comes with breathing heavily through open mouths, warrants mask-wearing when others are around.

As we move to in-person races later this year, it will become even more important for race organizers to encourage mask-wearing for anyone running in close proximity to others. Although vaccines are on the way, runners tend to be healthier than the general population, putting them at the back of the line for vaccinations. According to the CDC, masks are our best line of defense, and they “work best when everyone wears them.” The study that predicts a half million death by the end of February also suggests universal mask use could change that number significantly, saving upwards to 130,000 people.

There are almost 60 million runners in the U.S, and over 17.5 million of them registered for races in 2019. Road races are the sport’s focal point, bringing runners together to race and train. It’s time for those who promote the sport to advocate for mask-wearing whenever and wherever runners are in close proximity to others. The next few months, with rising infection rates and the rollout of the vaccine, will be vital to this effort. With the Shamrock Shuffle around the corner, CEM, and its CEO and President, Carey Pinkowski, can take the lead. Whether on the paths or the streets, when around others, masks should be required running attire—and race organizers should say so.

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Christopher Worthman is a professor of Secondary English Education at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. He is also a masked runner.