During the running boom years of the 1970s, when thousands more runners began to qualify for the Boston Marathon and the crowds along the roads thickened with the emergence of local hero Bill Rodgers, it got to the point in 1978 where runners couldn’t pass one another on Heartbreak Hill because the crowd jammed in so tight that the road narrowed to a single lane like at the Tour de France in the Pyrenees or the Alps.

Bill Rodgers winning in Boston 1978

During that time, I asked long time race director Will Cloney how the BAA would respond to the need to better police the route.

“When you have a crowd that big, Toni, it’s almost impossible to control them if they don’t want to be controlled,” Mr. Cloney responded.

Eventually, snow fencing along the curbs kept the crowds in check, but Mr. Cloney’s summation seems to speak directly to the conundrum facing governors and mayors and local officials across the country in today’s Coronavirus world.

Any hope that the coronavirus would dip during the warmer summer months has evaporated quicker than dew in the desert.  In the face of spiking numbers of new cases and hospitalizations across the country – after states tentatively began to reopen following a three-month lockdown – the sense that we’re all in this together seems to have escaped many Americans.

Instead, we hear cries of “A mask is a sign of submission to the power of the state,” and “you have to know we have lost our freedom when we submit to wearing a mask wherever we go.” Cries, of course, that the virus is deaf to.

Scenes from Venice Beach in L.A. or  Mission Beach in San Diego yesterday showed thousands of people gathered as if it were 1978 all over again. By the thousands, people without masks, without social distancing seemed to be either oblivious to the contagious environment they were creating or simply felt immune to the possible consequences, daring the virus to join them in their sociability.

San Diego’s Mission Beach (photo courtesy Sally Rogers)

How do you expect to police such mass gatherings if people don’t want to be controlled? Snow fencing won’t be the answer anymore.

Perhaps this will follow the case when seatbelts were first introduced as luxury options on cars, but soon were mandated by law for public safety. In that situation, too, people initially cried out against government intervention into their private choices and individual rights.

Eventually, though, it wasn’t the enforcement of laws by the police so much as a shared sense of civic responsibility and communal support that formed the new normal that today we adhere to and take for granted.

In these polarized, pandemic times, however, you just wonder if there’s a broad enough sense of community left in what used to be known as middle America to allow such civic responsibility to re-emerge before the pandemic gets built into a raging wildfire of contagion.



  1. I can only hope that people start to feel that civic responsibility more, Toni, as I fear the alternative for us as a strong nation.

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