BACKFIRE

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft aglay.” The language requires a bit of interpretation, but the statement is clear. The best of intentions can—and often does—go wrong. Last weekend, I saw first-hand.

Saturday, Carolyn and I took a post-lunch walk out Lake Street west towards the Palace of the Legion of Honor 1.7 miles away. At Sea Cliff, where mansions overlook the Golden Gate and Pacific, the stroll goes uphill to the fountain in front of the Palace. You enjoy spectacular views and get a nice workout. What could go wrong?

Plenty. A few days earlier, San Francisco closed tree-lined, bike-laned Lake Street to through traffic. No hardship there. People in the neighborhood can drive California Street a block south and traffic, while increasing, is still light.

Understandably, the concept of closed city streets is popular. People can walk, run and bike free from motorized impediments. In a non-COVID-19 world, that’s awesome.

In a situation calling for social distancing, that’s foolish.

The policy backfired because the crowd on Lake Street was way larger than any I’ve seen since San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order took effect on March 16. I walk three times a day, every day. Heading west on Lake isn’t my only route, but I take it at least daily—and at different times. My sense of the volume of people using the street is pretty reliable.

The problem? Keeping at least six feet from someone requires what I call slalom walking. No way can you just set out in any direction and walk in a straight line. Some sidewalks are too narrow or blocked. On wide sidewalks—which describes most in my neighborhood—people often stroll two or three abreast even when they see others coming. Staying to the right and briefly walking single-file seems too much bother. Also, most people don’t wear masks. So you duck out into the bike lane or into the street.

This poses unanticipated dangers. Counterintuitively, until the street opens to traffic, pedestrian safety is severely compromised.

Hordes of cyclists—no masks, understandably—speed along in both directions. Runners—no masks—whiz by. I ran for decades, so it pains me to say that most cyclists and runners refuse to give an inch, won’t swerve under any circumstances except for an oncoming vehicle. But closure restricts vehicles.

Try keeping your distance, and you take your life in your hands. The normally carefree route, even during the pandemic, has become an obstacle course. Accidents are waiting to happen while opportunities for people to spread the virus to others have increased—unless we’ve been misinformed about social distancing.

Playing it safe, Carolyn and I cut over to California Street. We encountered few walkers and, when necessary, went out into the street. Traffic was light. We made it up to the Palace and back.

Good intentions are insufficient. Theory goes just so far. While weekdays are calmer, weeknights are crowding up. Devil’s advocacy and observation should guide—and alter—our decisions. We’ll have many to make in the weeks, months and years going forward.

I suggest hanging the quote from Robert Burns in every home and municipal office in the nation. As a bonus, we’ll learn a bit of Scots.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two. I could write volumes. I’ll restrict myself to two heartfelt words to all those who fought in Europe and the Pacific, and slogged through on the home front: Thank you!

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19 Comments


  1. David Newman
    May 08, 2020

    On the walks Ellen and I are taking around Stern Grove and along the beach, we’ve noticed the same thing — walkers who don’t go single-file, runners and bikers who seem to believe that it’s a sin against the laws of physics to lose their momentum or swerve from a straight line. Mostly. however, people are pretty observant.

    It’s hard to tell in the few seconds it takes to pass someone whether we’re dealing with arrogance or ignorance — “I’m special” or “pandemic, what pandemic?” Without blaming everything on Trump, it wouldn’t hurt to have leaders who model right behavior. Instead, we get a combination of ignorance and arrogance at the highest level. It shouldn’t be surprising that ordinary folks are led to believe that’s an OK way to act.

    So, to my fellow travelers on the paths of the city, if you’re going to ignore something, ignore the White House, and if you’re going to be better than someone, be better than Trump. The life you save may be your own — or mine.


    • David
      May 08, 2020

      True that, David. Two White House staffers have come down with COVID-19, but the President and Vice President resist masks. Why should their supporters act differently?


  2. Claudia Long
    May 08, 2020

    At the risk of repeating myself–but then again, this post is so very much like the last one–masks are required in certain circumstances, and not in others.
    But our sense of superiority knows no bounds! WE know what’s right. WE are compliant. The others are, to quote, “ignorant or arrogant.” Must be comforting to be so right.
    You know this isn’t an apologist-for-45 answer, so any comment along those lines will be ignored. I hate the guy. But enough with the comments about who gets to walk on your route, and whether they’re getting their relief from isolation in a way that is consistent with your needs. It’s crowded? So are their apartments. It’s inconvenient? So’s not having exercise, relief, child care, school for their kids, distraction –to say nothing of employment or money.
    That makes them T supporters?
    Wear your mask, and consider a different route on the weekend evenings, when perhaps those who provide your mail, groceries, prescriptions, deliveries, internet service, food take-out etc during the week might be out taking a nighttime stroll. You can have the weekday route to yourself.


    • David
      May 08, 2020

      I hear you, Claudia, but today’s post was not a rant but an observation. The dynamics in a big city are bit different from those of a suburban area. Density matters, and San Francisco is dense though not like Manhattan. True, it’s difficult for many people to find space in San Francisco’s most dense neighborhoods. But interestingly, the Presidio National Park is just north of Lake Street. Space? You bet. Roads, trails… and great views.

      Of course, everyone is welcome to walk, run or bike on any city street. But this new program funnels a lot of people into a limited area. Other streets in the Richmond District remain quiet, accessible and easy to use for walking, running or biking.

      That said, the crowd on Lake isn’t “invading” my neighborhood. But last weekend, it was packed into a narrow space that made navigating one’s way difficult and/or unsafe because of the need to maintain social distance. This isn’t about turf. It’s about putting people, especially seniors, at some risk of accident or contracting the virus.

      Is your street open or closed?


    • Sandra Lipkowitz
      May 08, 2020

      I have to take issue with Claudia Long. -No one is saying that anyone is restricted from taking a walk to get out of the confins. However we all need to practice social distancing and wear masks. It falls in the same category as you can’t yell fire in a theater. Public safety does have some limits on individual freedom. If you walk closer than 6 feet from me, you are not wearing a masks and you cough or sneeze and you are infected with Covid-19 (you may not be symptomatic and are not aware), you have just infected me, anyone I come in contact with and any one of those infected persons could die. I don’t think you have that right to spread disease or cause death because you don’t feel like wearing a mask or take a few steps sideways to avoid someone.


  3. jean wright
    May 08, 2020

    and the rest of Bobby Burns poem goes:

    An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
    For promis’d joy

    (thinking of you all from my isolation in Portland …. Jean)


    • David
      May 08, 2020

      Really, Jean… Bobby? You knew him that well? Unfortunately, we have plenty of grief and pain. Stay well in Portland. The sun is shining on my neighborhood, but I’m not sure how long that will last.


      • David Newman
        May 09, 2020

        When we were in Edinburgh for the festivals a few years ago, one of the programs end s short course in Robert Burns’ Scots. Almost English, but not quite.


        • David
          May 09, 2020

          Hot mon!


  4. Tracy
    May 08, 2020

    I’ve heard this same observation from a number of other folks regarding Lake Street. A good idea with unintended consequences. Hopefully, it will sort itself out before things get bad.

    Nonetheless, I prefer to drink a bit of Scotch than to learn a bit of Scots.

    But that’s just me. Gut Shabbos!!


    • David
      May 08, 2020

      Drink up, Tracy. A good idea at a time like this. Shabbat Shalom!


  5. Sandra Lipkowitz
    May 08, 2020

    Interesting comments on the closure. I have been grocery shopping for a family that is completely shut in and lives a block away from you. Last Sunday was the first time I encountered the closure driving back. However I have noticed previous to that, that the people in your area are the ones who walk the closest and with the least amount of masks. Not to say I don’t see it in other places, but it was a marked increase. What I also found surprising is that it was senior couples and young families with kids in strollers. In my part of town it’s more the millenials.


    • David
      May 08, 2020

      Sandy, re taking responsibility by wearing masks and keeping a safe distance, we are definitely agreed. We must take responsibility for each other. As to whether people on Lake Street pay less attention to social distancing than people in other neighborhoods, I don’t know. I’m not in other neighborhoods. Does a quiet, tree-lined street lull people into complacency? I have no idea. But complacency could bring a major spike in the virus, so I hope people will stay vigilant and act thoughtfully. Unfortunately, not everyone will.


  6. Martin Weiner
    May 08, 2020

    My brothers and I walk
    On Jackson between Laguna and Broderick
    No problems on that route. Wishing everyone
    health and safety


    • David
      May 08, 2020

      Great route, Marty. No problem because the street isn’t closed off to through traffic and thus doesn’t constitute an attraction (understandable) to many people nearby and from farther away.


  7. Jesse Fink
    May 08, 2020

    Miss you guys.
    Who would have thought!


    • David
      May 09, 2020

      There was an old WWII song, “We’ll Meet Again.” Will happen, Jesse.


  8. Joan Sutton
    May 09, 2020

    I walk around West Portal and I’d say only about half the people I see are wearing masks. Joggers and bicyclists definitely are not. A jogger without a mask almost ran into me coming around the corner yesterday. i did speak to her and I asked her to please wear a mask. I was very polite though. I’ve heard that the chances of getting the virus are greatly reduced (90% reduced?) if people wear masks. But this is an invisible enemy and people regard themselves as immortal exceptions to any rules, it seems.


    • David
      May 09, 2020

      I understand why cyclists and joggers don’t wear masks, Joan. Hard to breathe. Doesn’t make sense to risk a cardiac event. But that places more responsibility on those who bike and run to be careful. Sadly, few assume that responsibility. The odds of infection outside are relatively low, but low doesn’t mean-non existent. Walkers have to take a lot of extra care.

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