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If you feel like there are more people out there running, you’re not alone

A mask-wearing man set up a hammock between two trees along the Charles River on the Esplanade Monday and relaxed as other mask-wearing people ran and cycled by him.
A mask-wearing man set up a hammock between two trees along the Charles River on the Esplanade Monday and relaxed as other mask-wearing people ran and cycled by him.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

When Jonathan Levitt went out for a run on a recent cold and rainy afternoon, he thought the poor conditions would mean that he’d have the trails and sidewalks mostly to himself.

“I was like, ‘Oh great, it’ll be empty and there won’t be many people and it will be easy to distance,’” said Levitt, a longtime runner with a few marathons under his belt.

But the weather was no deterrent. Nor, it seemed, was the potential threat of COVID-19.

“It was packed,” he said.

Like many others, the 29-year-old Allston resident has noticed what’s become obvious to anyone who’s stepped outside to escape the confines of home in the last few weeks: A lot of people are trying to get some fresh air and exercise.

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The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus — and the shuttering of gyms and fitness studios — has sent many a runner out onto the pavement. And why not? It’s free, and experts say it’s good for both the brain and the body.

But the influx of runners all over Greater Boston has raised some eyebrows at a time when the city and state are encouraging people to keep their distance to help stop the spread of coronavirus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising Americans to cover their faces when out in public.

Running is among the very best sports for social distancing. It is inherently solitary, and perhaps one of the easiest sports for a novice to jump into.

“It’s low maintenance,” said Ian Nurse, a sports chiropractor and owner of Wellness in Motion Boston, which is offering complimentary telehealth consults while his storefronts are closed. “You put on some shoes, you put on some shorts, and you go for a run.”

Nurse, who is a daily runner, said not only has he seen an uptick in clients reaching out for advice as they pick up running for the first time, or get back into it after a hiatus, but he’s also become aware of the surge of people chugging along outdoors.

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“I think people just really need the stress relief right now,” he said, “and the fact that the weather has been pretty good has allowed people to get outside and get some fresh air and feel like they’re less locked-down in their apartments and houses.”

Runners, walkers, a dog, and cyclists, some wearing masks, some not, shared space Monday with some flowers that are in bloom in front of the stage at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade along the Charles River.
Runners, walkers, a dog, and cyclists, some wearing masks, some not, shared space Monday with some flowers that are in bloom in front of the stage at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade along the Charles River.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

While the running community has opened its arms to newcomers adding a jaunt to their daily itinerary — with some calling it a silver-lining amid an international crisis — picking out novices has become fairly easy.

For Malden resident Kyla Astley, who heads out at least a few times per week for a run, there are some instant giveaways, including the “Oh-my-gosh-this-is-so-grueling”-type looks on the unfamiliar faces she sees along her routes.

“They haven’t gotten used to it yet,” said Astley, who started running again now that winter’s over.

Then, of course, there are the ensembles, she added.

“People are wearing a lot of new gear,” Astley said. “You can tell if there is someone out there with new sneakers, bright new running pants, and a bright neon jacket. It’s just everything looks too brand new, like they just said ‘I’m going to run!,’ and went and bought everything.”

Taking care of your body and getting regular exercise are among the recommendations on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of “things you can do to support yourself” during the worldwide pandemic.

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But the apparent spike in runners has led to some concerns and complaints. Specifically, people have been asking those who’re exercising in areas that have seen an increased volume of visitors to be more cognizant of their surroundings, by adding extra space to the recommended 6-foot “social-distancing” rules.

“I don’t know who needs to hear this — EVERY RUNNER IN AMERICA — but it is your responsibility to give a way wider detour around any pedestrian than six feet as you speed past them huffing and panting,” Clara Jeffery, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, tweeted last week, in a plea that was shared several thousands of times.

In response to Jeffery’s viral message, one person said they’ve “taken to getting up before dawn to take a walk because I have had so many bad non-distancing experiences with runners and bikers.”

Health officials in Arlington even posted a reminder online “to keep your distance when you are out getting exercise” on the town’s portion of the Minuteman Bikeway, a popular path that stretches from the Alewife MBTA station to Bedford.

“We understand it feels awkward,” the town wrote. “However, keeping a distance of 6 feet from others is actually being polite.”

Recently, the rules around wearing masks when in public also shifted, with the CDC now recommending people wear cloth face coverings outside if they’re "in a situation where they are unable to maintain social distancing measures.”

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The updated guidelines have left some wondering if that should apply to runners, since they’re exhaling heavily and more frequently, much of the time from their mouths.

The Boston Public Health Commission said this week that it’s encouraging everyone to wear a face-covering, even while exercising. If a person has to remove a mask to breathe properly while running, they should make sure no one is close by.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an ideal world — personally — he would have runners wear masks.

But, he said, the evidence to suggest that a runner sailing past someone swiftly is a meaningful source of transmission of the coronavirus is “pretty weak.”

“All else held equal, it would be better if runners wore masks — it would be better if everybody wore masks," he said, but "on a priority level, I would not make this a major priority.”

Jha said the better advice is to follow the CDC’s and state and local officials’ requests to keep a good distance from each other, and avoid running in groups or along crowded routes.

Joseph LeBlanc, founder of Run Club Malden, has been doing all of those.

Instead of hitting outdoor tracks and pathways that seem to fill up with new hobbyists, he’s using this disruption caused by the virus to explore his community and surrounding towns.

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“My runs are less focused on speed, and more about enjoying the fresh air and doing something I love,” he said in an e-mail to the Globe. “The term ‘meandering’ comes to mind.”

Five runners made their way on the footbridge connecting Massachusetts Avenue and the Esplanade on Monday.
Five runners made their way on the footbridge connecting Massachusetts Avenue and the Esplanade on Monday. Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.