Do Shelter-in-Place Orders Allow Outdoor Recreational Cycling?

California’s businesses and residents are now under a statewide order to Shelter in Place. The order requires, “all individuals living in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors.” The motive for the order is in the order: “Our goal is simple, we want to bend the curve, and disrupt the spread of the virus.”

When can you leave your home? “... to obtain or perform the functions above, or to otherwise facilitate authorized necessary activities." Is recreation or fitness an “authorized necessary activity.”

The shorter answer is, it’s fine to ride your bike outdoor for recreation. This does not violate the executive order.

I spoke to 3 people who have insight on this. The first was Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, a leading cycling advocacy group in California. “All of the orders say that outdoor activities for exercise, ‘including by way of example without limitation, hiking, running, and walking’ are permitted. That sure seems to include bicycling, and every time we’ve asked a local official they’ve said it includes bicycling.”

But I didn’t have a primary source from an organization responsible for this Executive Order. I spoke to the California Highway Patrol, specifically to public information officer Amber Wright of the Southern Division. “As far as biking, running, maintaining social distance, that’s all the CHP will be looking at,” she said. “Beyond social distance, there is no directive from the governor, nothing on that.” If a cyclist is, “maintaining social distancing per the Executive Order, that’s okay." She said that the CHP will limit its enforcement to violations of social distancing unless it gets a further directive from the Governor's office.

The office on point for implementing this Executive Order is the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. I traded emails with Robb Mayberry, Information Officer at that org. He wrote, “The order doesn't drill down that specifically, but rural bicycling is similar to hiking or walking just faster. As long as you are practicing social distancing (6 feet or more from others), no group gatherings, washing your hands frequently and staying away from others that are sick you should be fine.”

As this is the office in charge of this rollout, so-empowered and designated by the Governor, there is no higher authority. Accordingly, hikest thy leg over thine top tube.

Dave Snyder reminds us, though, that not all these designations are equal. “Just be careful. In Italy and Spain they’ve banned recreational bicycling because of the potential for injuries requiring hospitalization and resources the system doesn’t have.”

Let us speak to this last point. Just because you can, should you? There is the ethical question of whether it’s appropriate to cycle, placing a potential burden on the health care system if you crash. Everyone must make a personal decision.

That said, from an actuarial perspective – letting data rather than emotion drive this decision – I’m unconvinced that the data to support this concern exists, as long as riders gauge their habits and routes with safety in mind. Racing is out. Group riding is out. One hopes that sketchy, trafficked roads are out. Setting a new Strava standard on a twisty descent is out. High-risk technical offroad downhills are out.

Finally, a word about flattening-the-curve.

If you Google that heavily-used phrase, and you migrate to the “images” tab, you’ll see a lot of graphs, and every graph looks the same, we’ve all seen them. There’s a line designating the capacity of the health care system. Up the Y axis is the number of those contracting the virus, and unmodified behavior shows that curve blowing right past the capacity to care for sick individuals. Out the X axis, that axis frequently has no metric associated with it, because few who make that chart want to tell the truth about the implications of that chart.

The X axis is time. In weeks, or months. And what we see in all these graphs is that when social distancing pushes down the peak number of those infected at any one time – when the curve is flattened – the X axis stretches. The time we spend under what feels like house arrest increases.

We all understand that this virus will take as long as it takes. We all get that. We are consigned to the realities of this pandemic.

I write this because there is no end-date to California’s Executive Order to shelter-in-place and if there was it would be arbitrary. The order will rescind when we reach the end of that X axis. What will keep us vigilant is our ability to eat, earn, communicate, and recreate while obeying the imperatives that attach to social distancing.

I am often asked what the rules should be for gravel triathlons. My answer to that question today is this: the same as the rules for shelter-in-place: The rules that allow us to get to the end of this “race” whole, healthy, fairly, and intact. Those rules, and only those rules. Adding extra rules makes it less likely we'll remain disciplined and focused on the important rules over the duration of this.

Accordingly, we will continue to report accurately on what you can do, and what you can’t do, and as of today you absolutely can ride your bicycle outside for recreation in the State of California.