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Boston Marathon takes on a new challenge — dealing with coronavirus uncertainty

So far, BAA officials say there is no reason to cancel one of the world’s oldest sporting events.

Runners at the start of the Boston Marathon in 2019.
Runners at the start of the Boston Marathon in 2019.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

UPDATE: The 2020 Boston Marathon has been postponed until Sept. 14.

It’s Boston’s marquee event, every spring drawing about a million spectators, thousands of visitors from around the world, and some $200 million into the city’s economy.

Over the past 124 years, without fail, runners have made their way along the hilly course of the Boston Marathon, through snow squalls, heat waves, world wars, and in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

But this year, for the first time in its storied history, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the world’s oldest continuous marathon, as fears of a global pandemic intensify. The first death in the US from the coronavirus was announced Saturday, one day after the World Health Organization raised its risk assessment of the global outbreak to its highest level as the illness accelerated around the globe.

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“We will continue to closely follow updates from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Public Health, and World Health Organization, and will adhere to any policies put forth by the federal government,” said Kendra Butters, a spokeswoman for the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the Marathon.

Neither Butters nor other BAA officials would say what criteria they would use to decide whether to cancel the race or when they would make such a decision.

For now, the race is “proceeding as planned," Butters said.

Even if the Marathon takes place, some of the more than 31,000 registered runners may not be able to reach the starting line.

About one-third of the registered runners are from outside the United States, representing 119 other countries. The Trump administration has temporarily barred anyone from traveling to the United States from China, which has 763 runners registered in the race, and on Saturday extended the ban to people coming from Iran and required travelers from Italy and South Korea to undergo screening.

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Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and director of its Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, said it made sense to adopt a wait-and-see approach, for now.

“I think by April we will have a very much clearer perception of what the risks are in different places,” he said. “If there is significant ongoing transmission in Boston, then runners from abroad will not materially change the risk. If we still haven’t seen that, then it will likely make sense to limit incoming travelers, at least.”

Edward Nardell, a professor at Harvard Medical School who studies infectious diseases, suggested the BAA and local officials consider “a more rational approach” of releasing a plan of “possible cancellation, depending on the course of the epidemic,” with a deadline for that decision depending on what happens by the second or third week of March.

For now, public officials are similarly cautious but noncommittal.

“We are taking every precaution to keep our city healthy and safe,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “As the situation continues to evolve, we are continually assessing potential threats, and as a city, we will be ready to respond in case the virus does spread.”

The looming threat of the coronavirus to the Boston Marathon has started to weigh on the directors of the many teams whose runners raise millions of dollars every year for charities.

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“Their anxiety has been rising, it’s fair to say,” said Timothy Kilduff, president of the 26.2 Foundation, which has 50 runners raising money, 15 of them from abroad.

Kilduff, who served as the Marathon’s race director in the 1980s, said his former colleagues at the BAA are in a “challenging spot.”

“As a traditionalist, I’d say we should proceed with the race,” he said. “But we do run the risk of the course being empty of spectators.”

The first US fatality was a man in his 50s who had underlying health conditions and no history of travel or contact with anyone else with the coronavirus, health officials in Washington said Saturday. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency and officials there are already discussing whether to recommend canceling sporting and large events. The virus has so far infected 68 people from the United States, most of whom had been on a cruise ship in Asia. But federal health officials say they expect more cases in the United States. Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 86,000 people in more than 50 countries, with almost 3,000 deaths attributed to the illness.

Other big sporting events around the world have been affected by the threat of the virus. The Tokyo Marathon canceled its race on Sunday for all but elite runners, and officials in Japan canceled two other large marathons, the Nagoya Women’s Marathon and the Nagoya City Marathon, both scheduled in early March.

“Much to our regret, we reached a conclusion that it is extremely difficult to stage a safe and secure event that all runners can participate without worries,” organizers of the Nagoya Women’s Marathon, which is an Olympic qualifying race for Japanese runners, said in a statement.

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On Saturday, race organizers in Paris announced they were postponing the city’s annual half marathon scheduled for Sunday, after French health officials temporarily banned all indoor public gatherings of more than 5,000 people. And in late February in Israel, health officials limited a marathon in Tel Aviv held on Friday to only runners who were already in the country.

In Italy, where nearly 700 people have been infected with the virus, major soccer matches are being played in empty stadiums. Neighboring Switzerland, with just 15 cases of people infected, has banned all public and private events in the country involving more than 1,000 people.

In Boston, Susan Hurley, manages the fund-raising for 40 teams running in the Marathon. She said it was unclear whether the virus would hamper their goal of raising $5 million.

“We’re just trying to stay optimistic,” she said.

So are many of the runners.

After three other marathons, Taylor Schuster has long looked forward to crossing the finish line in Boston.

The 28-year-old sports marketer said she finds it concerning that federal officials have warned Americans to expect the disease to spread throughout the United States. But as for having second thoughts yet about running Boston , she said: “Not yet.”

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Rochelle Solomon has started to wonder whether all her training could be for naught.

For now, the 44-year-old compliance officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital said she’s placing her trust in state and federal authorities.

“If it came to light there is no active planning in place, I would be concerned about running,” she said.

For his part, Bill Rodgers, who won the Boston Marathon four times, said he thought it was “way too early” to consider canceling the race. He noted that the Marathon was even held in 1918 — though as a relay race by different teams from the military — at the height of World War I and through a flu pandemic.

In Hopkinton, where the race starts, local officials said they’re worried about the economic toll if the race is canceled.

“I want the Marathon to go on, and for it to be safe and fruitful,” said Brendan Tedstone, chair of the town’s board of selectmen, who’s also a licensed nurse. “However, I would never sacrifice the safety of our residents, here or elsewhere.”

A decision to cancel should be made after consulting with experts and a range of other officials, he said.

“I would vote to cancel it, without question, if that was necessary,” he said.

At the other end of the race, at the finish line in the Back Bay, Peter Gilmore, manager of Marathon Sports, worried that a decision to cancel the race would be devastating to his business — and to Boston.

“Sales during the Marathon are huge for us, but it’s also a time when we get to showcase our store and city to the world,” he said. “We’re hoping we don’t have to go there.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.