The Boston Marathon has long been a celebration of spring, brimming with a spirit of renewal, community, and historical tribute.
But this year, for the first time in its 124-year history, the Boston Marathon will not be run on Patriots Day in April.
Local and state officials said Friday they are postponing the iconic race until Sept. 14, a shift designed to help blunt the spread of coronavirus while preserving one of the region’s most beloved traditions.
“It won’t look right on the calendar,” said Governor Charlie Baker, who was joined for the announcement by Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, Boston Athletic Association officials, and leaders of several towns along the 26.2 mile route. “But it is certainly the right thing to do.”
The move has been under discussion for several days, as event after event here and around the world has been called off or delayed in hopes of controlling the pandemic.
State and local leaders said they were loath to cancel the Marathon entirely, and hope a six-month delay will “get us to a safer place,” as Walsh put it.
Finding a new date was no simple matter. Between hot summer months, college move-ins over Labor Day weekend, the Jewish holidays in late September, along with other major marathons in October, there weren’t many weekends that made sense, Walsh said.
“This date jumped around like a pinball,” during recent discussions, Walsh said. “It’s complicated.”
Finally, on Friday morning, they settled on Sept. 14 — a Monday like Patriots Day. Officials plan to make the three-day weekend “the cornerstone of a campaign to help local businesses recover from this entire episode,” as Walsh put it.
Baker said he plans to file legislation soon to make the day a state holiday.
Some public health specialists questioned the wisdom of postponing the race, which draws about a million spectators each year, rather than canceling it.
They noted that it’s possible that the coronavirus will continue to spread through the summer, or that it could dissipate and return with a vengeance before the race. That’s what occurred with the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
“I would have canceled until further notice, but assume that is in effect what is being done,” said Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and director of its Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. “I assume they will rethink before holding it and see if there are signs of resurgence.”
But, at this point, no one really knows whether the virus will continue to be a major concern in six months, said Ashish Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at the Harvard T. H. Chan school.
“This is an unusual disease,” he said, noting that it’s behaving differently than other viruses. “Everybody needs to know that we’re making vast guesses with limited information. The chances that we’re wrong, and in a bad place in September, is certainly not zero.”
He suggested that officials revisit the question of whether it’s safe to hold the Marathon later in the summer.
“It could be that we could have another conversation in August and say we’re not going to do this,” he said.
Asked what would happen if the virus lingers, or returns, Walsh said they would have to wait and see.
“We’ll have to deal with the virus at that point,” he said. “We’ll make a decision some point down the road.”
The race generates about $200 million in tourist spending each year and roughly $40 million in charitable donations, as many runners commit to fund-raising for a bib. BAA executive director Tom Grilk said he hopes to maintain those numbers and that as many runners as possible will be able to make the new date.
Grilk said he expects that many of the more than 30,000 runners who are signed up for this year’s race will have a host of questions about the change. Events have been moving too fast to answer them all, Grilk said, but he promised to do so soon.
“There simply hasn’t been time to give proper thought in a way that’s respectful to all those runners,” he said. “But we will do so very promptly. We will have word to them during the next week.”
Among those questions is whether runners who won’t be able to make it to Boston in September could receive a refund or defer their entries for a year.
“There are a lot of logistics and other things we’re looking into,” said Kendra Butters, a spokeswoman for the BAA.
Some runners said they were disappointed in the delay, but that they understood the decision.
Jessica Rentsch was preparing to run her third Boston Marathon. The 35-year-old from Milton said she was happy to learn that the race hadn’t been canceled.
“The Boston Marathon is all about celebrating the community of Boston,” she said. “If postponing is what needs to happen to allow that celebration to happen in a happy and healthy way, that’s great.”
Katonya Burke, 44, has been training for 11 weeks to run her first Marathon, while raising more than $8,500 for a local charity. Now, she needs to recalibrate.
“I will be scaling back my training a bit for a while,” said Burke, who lives in Boston.
Walsh said there was never any discussion about holding the Marathon in April without spectators or limiting it to elite runners.
“The Marathon is for everybody,” he said. “We’re an inclusive marathon.”
Baker noted that the entire state is in for a marathon of sorts over the next few months, one that is only just beginning.
“The metaphor here writes itself,” he said. “Today we’re on the first leg of a marathon of our own as we battle this very serious disease.”