Yesterday the lockdown lifted. The state government helped. But even if they had chosen not to reopen the parks, that decision would’ve been overridden by the authority of the spring sun. If local greenspaces had been barricaded, people would have been out on sidewalks, in intersections, in vacant lots. Some traditions go too deep to be disrupted, even by a global crisis, and the first seventy degree day of the year is never ignored in New Jersey. Six days from now, the weather is supposed to be much worse. By then, the whole town may have developed a cough. We’ll know why: Liberty State Park was hopping.
We went by bicycle, which felt safer than walking. We could swerve away from clusters of people, we figured, and speed from crowded parts of the park to emptier ones. I’ve always felt bulletproof on a bicycle, which is probably why I write about bike rides as often as I do. All of the insecurity and vulnerability that I feel while doing every other activity?, it all falls away the moment I begin pedaling. There is no pathogen I cannot outpace, and no particle I can’t swerve around. On my bicycle I reach a clear and intoxicating strata of air, inaccessible to those with no wheels, or with (God help them) four. Usually these are productive illusions: they help me exercise, and they give me an artificial boost of physical confidence. During a pandemic, these beliefs are dangerous. I became scared of my own courage. I put on my mask, packed sanitizer, tied a string around my finger, told myself to stay vigilant. There’d be daylight, and people, and velocity; it’ll feel wonderful. Don’t get carried away.
Visitors to the park were encouraged, but not required, to mask themselves. Not everybody did. I was encouraged to see that most of the cyclists were masked. Many of the joggers weren’t. I’ve never been a runner, but I imagine that it makes very different respiratory demands of its practitioners than bicycling does. It may be difficult to run while masked. Joggers have taken a lot of abuse over the past few weeks: there’s a widespread belief that they’re generating and spewing the sort of large particles that could contain the virus. Pass a jogger who is breathing heavily, and you might just be courting infection. But there’s been no support yet for the theory that joggers are vectors for the coronavirus, and plenty of evidence that what the joggers are doing — exercising in the sun — is a public health good. My sense is that we’re throwing stones at an easy target, focusing our fears of asymptomatic spread on a class of people who the sedentary have always found suspicious.
We’ll know in a few days. We certainly shared the air with more than a few unmasked runners who, if infected, had to have been shedding virus. Everybody in the park did. But a particle-dispersing wind was blowing, and a UV-zapping sun was out, and, at least at 11 a.m., Jersey City people were doing their best to comply with social distancing suggestions. The park was busy, but people refrained from congregating in clusters. It’s scary to acknowledge that we’re the guinea pigs in our own experiments, but the awful truth is that the state of New Jersey has been a great petri dish for the better part of 2020. Without a definitive transmission model from scientists, we’ve had to draw our own conclusions, and we’ve decided that if we keep our distance, catching the virus outside is unlikely. That’s just a theory, but it’s one that’s backed up by eight weeks of lived experience at the epicenter of the global pandemic. The rat, if he could talk, may well have more to say about the maze than the observer does. It may well turn out that the reason that the virus hasn’t transferred all that successfully outdoors is because we’ve all been indoors. That’d be logical, and disappointing. But eventually, we’ve got to put our guesses to the test; otherwise, we’re never going to re-learn how to live.
Once off my bicycle and back at home, paranoia descended: did I touch anything?, were my airlock procedures before entering the basement sufficient?, was my little blue mask with the pink flowers saturated with viral particles from somebody’s slipstream? We left the masks on the fire escape to roast in the midday sun, and I retreated to the computer to catalog my regrets and brace myself for the coming symptoms. After awhile, I recognized that it was pointless. We need exercise. It isn’t healthy for either one of us to remain in the house for weeks. We court a risk by going out; we also court a risk by staying home. Either way, I’m going to be agitated. When we were out on our bikes on the verge of the park, Hilary asked me if I could stop looking back at her every second. Perhaps I could do it every five seconds instead. She was teasing me: she knows that years of worry have made me a head case. I tried; really I did. But I kept on looking back.