31 Mar 2020

People report concerns about physical distancing during Covid-19 lockdown

7:30 pm on 31 March 2020

Walkers out for their daily exercise are getting to grips with the not-so straight forward etiquette of physical distancing.

Lambton Quay, Wellington, on the morning of 26 March, on the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

A person walks down a street in Wellington on the first day of the lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

From being shouted at by neighbours to avoiding the busy areas, the first few days of the Covid-19 lockdown have been eventful for many.

In this time of social isolation and being pent up in houses, going for the daily walk and getting fresh air has become the highlight of the day for many people.

For those stuck inside, it's the best way to break up a day of moving from the sofa, to the dining table, to the kitchen, and back to the sofa.

But the new rule around keeping 2 metres distance has been catching people out, and provoking some tense moments.

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KJ Smith, who lives in Hataitai, was looking forward to going for her daily walk, but just as she left her house, she accidentally stumbled across a couple.

"This woman was kind of standing on the other side of my gate, and as I came out, she went 'Oi! Oi! 2 metres, God!'.

"I was just quite shocked, I was like, 'I didn't know you were there, there's no need to yell at me'.

"And then the guy that she was with, he muttered something like 'Obviously some people'. I didn't hear what he said after that."

She said she kept her head down and kept walking.

Methods of avoidance

Experiences such as KJ Smith's display the new dilemma: fellow walkers - once an excuse to stop and chat - are now obstacles to be avoided.

And none are trickier than families with small kids, or worse, an adorable pup.

"You've got kids that will just ride right past you, and not that far away, and you've got dogs, who come up to you," she said.

"I had a dog that came up to me the other day, and you know I love dogs, but I was like 'I'm sorry I can't pet you, I'm really sorry'.

"And there's quite a lot of people out at the moment, so maybe that contributes to people's stress."

But while there have been some tense moments, social media is also sharing stories of high levels of preparedness.

From the story of a family of three kids stretched across the path who were called to snap back into "bubble formation" as others approached, to the runner out with her children who issued the command "to me" to get everyone in close.

These experiences are new for everyone - and caution is rightly being exercised.

Lance Wiggs said he was out for a walk with his daughter, heading toward the Viaduct in Wynyard Quarter in Auckland, but decided against it when he got there.

"I just didn't feel that there was enough ability for me to keep my social distance from people," he said.

"One of my biggest concerns was the number of older people there, over 60, over 70 and perhaps even more, generally not seeming to understand the gravity of what they needed to do to keep their social distance."

Not only the number of people but the number of bikes there was also too much for him.

"For some reason, a lot of cyclists thought they didn't need to be so far away from people walking and the answer is actually they do.

"I'm not saying there was a big issue here, but overall it was just a bit uncomfortable, and when you're looking at safety first, you really have to be very prudent and just get out of the situation."

New rules, but who's counting?

The new rules of the pavement are still being worked out, and Police Commissioner Mike Bush has indicated the police are considering stepping into public spaces if they become too crowded.

Currently, they're relying on people exercising sensible judgement while exercising.

Some pathways are completely off-limits though.

"Do not go on bush walks, do not use bush huts," Walking Access New Zealand chief executive Ric Cullinane said.

"No one said this was going to be convenient or easy, but that's where we are at the moment."

He said people needed to make sure they completely avoid paths where you are physically unable to keep a suitable distance apart.

"I think we can all manage 2 metre spacing outside, in the street, on the park, and on the beach.

"But outdoors, on bush tracks, or out and about in the wilderness, it's not feasible to guarantee a 2 metre physical distance in that environment. So that sort of activity is just not available."

Getting used to such measures will take some time.

But it pays to remember no-one is used to this, and we're all just finding our feet.

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