Phill Courtney

My column in April about my runs through downtown Redlands during the height of the COVID clampdowns noted with irony several “essential” businesses that were still open, including a liquor store and a vaping shop. Several readers were particularly struck by the vaping shop, open at a time when a virus that attacks the lungs stalks the land. I guess we can chalk that one up to the wonders of the American free enterprise system.   

A recent study by Stanford University indicates that vaping may multiply a teen’s chances of catching COVID-19 some five times.

As COVID continues, though, many people now seem reconciled to the siege, while employing various means of assuaging the stress — some healthy, others not so much, as noted above.  As for my favorite liquor store, I’ve justified my trips there for my supply of “hard lemonade” by reminding myself that I am supporting a locally owned business.

Besides the lemonade, I continue to find that one of my most stress-reducing regimens remains my runs, one of the best of which takes me through the wilds of the Santa Ana River wash, about a 20-minute run north of my house. Except for one close encounter with a rattlesnake, I do find a maskless run with basically no humans around thoroughly refreshing.

My runs also continue to remind me of the ongoing societal struggles we’re going through. The wash is home to many people who have fashioned shelters. One of the few people I have talked to was a homeless couple hiking along the trail. I gave them some crackers I sometimes keep in my running pack for just such occasions.

My runs through downtown Redlands have also involved numerous encounters with the homeless who, as we know, are often mentally ill. Recently on a run, I saw a man shuffling along the sidewalk on Sixth Street ranting at the top of his lungs to some unseen audience. I decided this time to pass on the crackers and crossed the street.

As many of us knew long before the pandemic hit, the homeless are everywhere and this “new normal” of physical distancing and sheltering in place hasn’t helped. But, for many of them, sheltering in place and particularly physical distancing (not only by them but by many who seem to think that it’s best when the homeless are kept at arm’s length — out of sight, out of mind  has always been the “normal,” as my runs remind me.

Another sad incident shows what happens when a society looks away. In the early morning hours of Aug. 3, a homeless and presumably mentally ill man waving a knife while wandering in traffic was struck and killed by an SUV on Interstate 15 in Rancho Cucamonga. That man should never have been out there, but we’re allowing mentally ill people such as him to wander everywhere, unsupervised.

It’s clear: Everyone needs to be brought into the health care system. As Ralph Nader has always said, “Everybody in, nobody out.” We need a system that supervises and evaluates our physical and mental health, and diagnoses of our needs, which may help immensely in stopping for many this revolving door of homelessness, despair and possible death on the freeway.

This pandemic has brought into the light of day just what a house of cards both our economic and our patchwork for-profit health care systems actually are. What has yet to be brought out is whether this trying time will result in the sorts of changes needed for both types of people I have seen on my runs. Yes, we’re going through a crisis. But, as has often been said, a crisis can also be an opportunity.

Phill Courtney has taught high school English and was a congressional candidate with the Green Party twice in Riverside County. He can be reached at: