Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

Sidewalk Etiquette in a Physically Distanced world: A Beginner’s Guide

Bruce Birk, MD
May 04, 2020 05:00PM

It is evident to all that we are in a time of significant change. As such, we must roll with the punches or risk getting stuck in the old, now obsolete ways. In the past, one could walk down the sidewalk with impunity. You might have to dodge a skateboarder or step over dog poop but mostly you could strut without fear of spreading disease. Now you have to consider a complex set of societal rules and needs. It is confusing and a bit threatening.

As a physician, I feel the call of the community to use my skills to help us all in these difficult times. Beyond that, as a lover of society and a peacemaker, I feel I am qualified to assist in making the etiquette rules we so desperately need. Many have commented in the recent past on my use of etiquette at the dinner table or the golf course in a socially appropriate manner. Intense research has gone into the development of this guide as my beautiful wife and I have spent many hours walking our city streets to explore the etiquette rules. We have encountered a wide variety of situations that have informed this educational guide. 

Please note the use of the phrase “Physical distancing” instead of “Social distancing”. Physical distancing is an important tool in preventing the spread of disease. Socializing is an essential need in most of our lives and is not to be avoided unless your friends are smelly or generally unlikable. 

The Basics: 

It is generally a good idea to walk on the left side of the road against the flow of traffic. In the old model, one would walk on the right side but due to the risk that you will have to leave the sidewalk to maintain 6 feet of separation and enter the street it is best to be opposing the oncoming traffic. My wife thinks I am being absurd and she is correct but I say, “Safety First!”

The primary issue is who must move when there are multiple persons walking on the same sidewalk. The right-of-way in these varying situations depends on a series of levels of prioritization. Basically, it comes down to who gets to walk on versus who must adjust their path. My coworker (also a knowledgeable physician and therefore able to contribute) thinks that “personal responsibility” must be the law of the land. So, each of us must take actions for the better of society. She is very nice. I, personally, would prefer if you all move out of my way. Anyways, for your review, here is the list from the highest to lower priority sidewalk user:

  1. Elderly people - clearly they are the ones trying the most to avoid Coronavirus so they must get priority. 
  2. People dressed like old people to trick the system - if they are willing to go to that much effort or their fashion is that out of date, then they deserve to be higher priority.
  3. Children under age 10 years - they are little germ factories and everyone should stay away from them. Also, they are a danger in the street and never pay attention to their surroundings or listen to their parents.
  4. People with dogs/ferrets/parakeets, etc - since they likely don’t have any real control over their animal, you should yield to them. If you both have a dog then the one with the shortest leash should vacate the sidewalk. Everyone should yield rapidly for ferrets as they will crawl up your pant leg if you get too close.
  5. People with walking support like a cane, walker, or wheelchair - it is the right thing to do to yield to them the sidewalk and if you don’t they might hit you with their cane.
  6. Oblivious people with small speakers in or over their ears looking towards their shoes and pretending that you don’t exist- I know you want them to move off the sidewalk but they are not going to so you had better move.
  7. People with cell phones - this is a wide open category because some are paying attention to their surroundings and some are not. I would go with the idea that if they are more like #6 then you move off the sidewalk, but if they are more aware, then they move as punishment for multi-tasking. 
  8. Joggers - this is a tricky one because logic dictates that they are healthy and nimble enough to jog 6 feet away from you but they are breathing heavily (and probably contagious), often oblivious to their surroundings, and jerkily might jump in front of a car. Best be safe and give them more space.
  9. Children over age 10 - these punks had better move off the sidewalk. If they don’t, then glare at them or hit them with your cane. 
  10. People with full facial cover gas masks like from a biohazard-rich clinic. They are very well protected so you probably can safely take priority but then again, they got that fancy mask from somewhere. Think about it

Special Situations:

  1. Groups: The goal of physical distancing is to separate us so we don’t spread disease. So, if my wife and I (a small, not physically distanced group) are faced with a larger family group then logic would suggest we should move. We are smaller and more able to move and in a fight they have numbers. This might depend on what kind of equipment one is carrying (See below). 
  2. Smokers: In this scenario it really depends on what they are smoking. If they are smoking tobacco (especially fruity vape stuff) then they absolutely are lowest priority and need to move (to another city). If they are smoking marijuana then they are probably from #6 above so you need to move. 

Confusing scenarios:

  1. Trapped: So, you come to an intersection and end up trapped between multiple ambulating parties. First off, don’t panic. Second, check your mask to make sure it is actually covering your face. Third, look for an open space. Fourth, drop to the ground and crawl towards it. 
  2. Impasse: We were walking the other day and turned onto a small street where we were faced with other walkers. We were already getting close. Eye contact was made. Sadly, we were hesitant to move and so were they so we ended up standing face to face (6 feet away, of course). There was some apologizing and then each offering to move but no definitive action. So, we started talking about the weather, the quarantine, sidewalk etiquette, etc. Finally, we moved as far as we could to one side of the sidewalk and they the other, and passed each other. It was very intense and upsetting and required an immediate return to home for a glass of wine. To prevent these situations from occurring, I strongly suggest everyone carry some wine with them.

Communication Techniques: 

It is important to find ways to communicate with other sidewalk users. I am a proponent of a flag system. A green flag means “You go”. Red flag means “Move out of my way”. Yellow flag for “I am not sure what to do. Please raise one of your flags.” My beautiful wife thinks this is insane and she is probably correct. She is a fan of glaring at the person to send the message. A nice coworker of mine thinks verbal communication in a polite manner is effective. He uses phrases like “Please go first.” and “Thank you for moving into the street.” and “I appreciate you.” He might be onto something. 

Equipment: 

  1. A big stick (at least 6 feet in length). Not only will it qualify you as a person with walking support (see above) but it can be used to ensure proper physical distancing.
  2. Your voice. While on a narrow nature trail a coworker of mine and her child were faced with a rapidly approaching jogger. They were unable to move quick enough and so the jogger blew past them while yelling, “Six feet!!”. The jogger, of course, was completely in the wrong and a jerk, but he did transmit the message well.
  3. Pepper spray, mace, nunchucks. No need for explanation.

Well, I think that covers the basics. Of course, all of these thoughts are up for debate. As a professional, I am aware that we need extensive research on this topic and certainly more charts or graphs. So, be strong. Stay safe. Together we will make it through this.