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Top-Down Convertible Driving Isn’t Wise During Social Distancing, at Least One Expert Says

Social distancing needs to extend beyond six feet when you’re driving in the open air.

Todd LassaWriter, Photographer

Convertible car corona? Most modern cars are cocoons, with thick pillars, windows usually rolled up, and HVAC systems covering our weather protection and comfort needs for daily commutes. For some of us in the North, though, convertible season is key; even a sunny spring day with temps barely making it into the 50s is all we need to put the top down for the evening commute home. Anticipation of these early top-down days can get us (my wife, for one) through a long, cold, snowy Great Lakes Region winter.

Regardless, spring is here around the country, and topless-driving season would normally be in full swing. After weeks of self-isolation in the house, where the only forays outside are to walk the dogs or get groceries dropped off by a gloved and masked store employee, the thought of zipping along a twisty road, or even a crowded urban street with the wind in our hair is a dream of liberation.

But this COVID-19 coronavirus spreads way too easily. Driving with windows and top down in our Mazda MX-5 Miata—or no windows, top off in our Austin-Healey Sprite—suddenly seems like throwing far too much caution to the wind.

Which raises the question: Are open-top car devotees safe so long as we keep six feet from any other cars or from pedestrians? A couple of months into social distancing, physicians, scientists, and other experts are beginning to warn that the six-foot rule is not always the six-foot rule. Convertible car corona, as a result, is worth serious consideration before you lower the roof.

Recently, Linsey Marr, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, warned on NPR's "All Things Considered" that "six feet is not enough" for runners and joggers trying to keep fit.

The news is even worse for convertible car owners.

"That six feet is in still air, and no motion," says Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious-disease research for Beaumont Health, Michigan's largest hospital system. "I think it's safer, in general, if you're going to use your car, consider it an enclosure."

Sims also is principal investigator in a newly announced test for novel coronavirus antibodies, to determine whether patients are immune from contracting a second case, "believed to be the nation's largest" such investigation according to The Washington Post. The study is designed to determine whether plasma from a COVID-19 patient who has been cured can be used to treat other coronavirus patients.

The "six-foot rule" works if you're driving down the road and stop to chat with cruisers in another convertible, and maintain that distance, Sims says. But it doesn't work if your potential convertible car corona scenarios involve driving with only six-feet between your car and the cars around you.

"Now, if you're in the middle of nowhere it might be OK to put the top down," Sims says. "Until another car comes along."

Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, the health system's main campus, is just off of Woodward Avenue, on 13 Mile Road, pretty much the epicenter of the famous annual Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise.

Such events, with cars jammed bumper-to-bumper on Woodward and crowds packed on the side of the road to watch them, also may be in jeopardy as experts are unsure whether the heat of summer will give the U.S. respite from the coronavirus. Think too about this year's Monterey Car Week, which includes the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, not to mention your local parade, classic car show, or cars and coffee gatherings.

Woodward Dream Cruise organizers say they are "making the necessary adjustments to protect public health through social distancing," according to Michael Lary, Woodward Dream Cruise Inc. president. The organization for now "remains focused" on plans for the world's largest car-cruising event, scheduled for August 15.

For the first time ever, the Woodward Dream Cruise precedes the Indianapolis 500, thanks to the latter being postponed from its traditional Memorial Day Weekend date to August 23. The race is still on, for now, while the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, usually held the same Sunday as the Indy 500, is canceled this year.

Dream Cruise "will rely on the strong partnerships we have with our cruisers, sponsors, exhibitors, spectators, and loyal car enthusiast, to deliver another celebration of all things automotive in August," Lary adds. "We are working to deliver the same caliber of family-fun activities that fans have come to expect for the past 25 years."

However, if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extends Michigan's stay-at-home order, now scheduled to end April 30, into August, "we will follow the executive order at that time in case a cancelation is required. While our hope is that the current challenges of COVID-19 will significantly decrease, and normalcy will return soon, our first priority is public safety."

Either way and no matter where you live or drive, you should think long and hard about putting the top down for at least the near future. Convertible car corona, it seems, isn't something to take lightly.