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This Lung Surgeon Says (Solo) Surfing Is Still Safe During Coronavirus Outbreak

Doing it alone, just the way we like it. Photo: JP Van Swae


The Inertia

If you live in an urban area, you might be ready to lose your marbles. The Coronavirus has yet to hit its apex in the U.S., grocery store shelves are empty, bars and eateries are closed, officials are telling you to stay inside or away from other humans, and the economy looks like it’s about to go over the falls. It’s a lot to take in. For some, it’s straight-up anxiety inducing.

Yes, these are uncertain times indeed. But take a breath. Maybe two. Drink a beer. Maybe three. This too shall pass. And while we’re waiting, I checked in on something that I’ve been wondering about: us surfers loathe being close to each other. And salt water is a sanitizing substance. So common sense says that surfing might not be the worst thing for you during the Coronavirus outbreak. It might actually still be good for us.

So  I made a phone call to Dr. Jeffrey J. Spillane, a thoracic surgeon, lung expert, and longtime Cape Cod surfer. The man knows his stuff when it comes to respiratory infections. “It’s all about the salt water,” he says. “I keep saying the ocean is going to save us.”

Spillane is a big believer in the neti pot, the power of salt water, and its ability to cleanse the human body. “There was a great study on sinusitis (inflammation of the sinus tissues which cause infections) on Australian surfers and non-surfers,” he says. “That nasal drip that surfers get is actually a good thing because it flushes the sinuses. In the study, surfers had a lower incidence of sinus problems. Surfing is like constantly using a neti pot.”

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That flushing scrubs our system and while Dr. Spillane stopped short of saying it disinfects, he did heap praise on the ocean’s propensity to cleanse us of disease (if it’s not infected with sewage, of course).

The good doctor also referenced the fact that surfers aren’t “pack rats” and would rather stay way clear of one another in the water, preferring empty beaches to packed lineups, so social distancing is of course a natural part of our makeup.

The problem is out of the water, when we’re socializing in the parking lot. In short, don’t do that, even though we might want to, especially if you’re in a place where local officials have asked for voluntary lockdowns (that now includes California as Governor Gavin Newsom ordered a state-wide stay-at-home order Thursday).  “If your health is compromised, it’s not a good idea, if you’re swapping towels in the parking lot, it’s not a good idea,” he says. “But getting outside is a good idea. Surfing is something we can hold on to right now.”

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I really dug Dr. Spillane’s outlook. I’m a glass-half-full kind of kook, take it or leave it. But I’ll take Spillane’s reasoning: “There is some good that’s going to come out of this,” he says. “Most of the general public is now listening to scientists. When scientists are freaking out, it’s time to freak out. It’s a global problem that’s bringing us together. So maybe going forward, it’ll be easier to solve the global warming problem.”

Strong work, doctor. Strong work.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated Thursday, March 19 (8:00 p.m. PST) to reflect the fact that Californians have been asked to stay at home to reduce the spread of Coronavirus.

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