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Grieving spring: Bloomington grapples with a surreal new normal



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Kirkwood Avenue appears empty March 29 near the Graduate Hotel. Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a stay-at-home order March 23 asking Hoosiers to stay inside. Alex Deryn

On the cusp of spring break, IU’s students had filled their calendars with flights, weddings and trips to faraway beaches. But as emails flooded in, events were postponed indefinitely or canceled one by one.

Classes moved online. Sports seasons ended, and Little 500 was canceled for the first time in its history. Graduation plans were abandoned, and students rushed to move out and return home to their parents. Some, so far away from home, were left stranded.

Days bled together. Time plodded on.

A deer loitered on the street in front of the IU Arboretum on a street once choked with cars. After a long winter, pink flowers blossomed from the trees surrounding the limestone buildings, but most of the doors were locked.

Caution tape wraps around swings April 2 on South Lincoln Street. Parks and playgrounds have been shut down around the city. Alex Deryn

Tuesday, March 10
Indiana Cases: 10 // Deaths: 2
U.S. Cases: 936 // Deaths:
31

A group of women leaned over the bar at the nearly empty Video Saloon.

California had just announced its classes would move online, but here in Middle America, they were still in session. IU’s spring break was just days away.

“And a Corona for you too?” the bartender asked, unamused.

“Yes please,” one of them giggled. A woman behind her dropped the lime topping her Corona bottle, letting it plop to the floor. Her friend took her own lime and stationed it atop the girl’s bottle.

As the group sauntered to their booth in the dim light, one woman held her bottle in the air.

“A Corona to stop the coronavirus!” she said. Everyone laughed.

Wednesday, March 11
Indiana Cases: 11 // Deaths: 2
U.S. Cases: 1,205 // Deaths:
37

A student lathered her hands with soap at the sink of a Ballantine Hall bathroom, two days before IU shuttered its doors. 

She rinsed, squirted another dollop of soap from the dispenser, then began lathering once again.

Satisfied, she looked at both her hands and turned to the student at the neighboring sink.

“Coronavirus,” she said, holding her clean hands in the air like a surgeon. “Can’t be too careful.”

Thursday, March 12 
Indiana Cases: 12 // Deaths: 2
U.S. Cases: 1,598 // Deaths:
41

A shopper's cart clattered with non-perishable food cans. She glanced at the shelf – one lone, lavender bottle of Mr. Clean, whose eyes said, “Pick me, and I will protect your family.” Perhaps, another day, Mr. Clean. Toilet paper first.

The toilet paper section was empty — but here came Walmart employee Aaron Cook and a pallet of 2-ply. 

A woman grabbed two packages and said, "Just in case."

A couple turned the aisle. "We'll get some just in case."

They grabbed the rolls right off the pallet.

A Target employee begins to stock shelves with toilet paper March 20. Target remains open while the rest of College Mall has closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Claire Livingston

Friday, March 13
Indiana Cases: 15 // Deaths: 4
U.S. Cases: 2,163 // Deaths:
49

People still cut each other off in traffic, even in a pandemic.

College Mall was empty. A few elderly folks and students in masks wandered around, looking wary. No one made small talk. The faceless H&M mannequins stared on. 

The Bath and Body Works ran out of hand sanitizers. “But we still have soap,” the clerk said. “People keep forgetting that.” 

By 1 a.m., it was quiet. Ubers didn’t pull up to the Kirkwood Avenue bars to pick up women tottering on high heels. There was no line at Taco Bell. Only two people sat in Z&C, laughing. One of the lights on the Sample Gates was out.

An IU student went to the student health center with flu-like symptoms. A nurse sent a test for the coronavirus to a private lab. The student went into isolation at home.

Sunday, March 15
Indiana Cases: 26 // Deaths: 6
U.S. Cases: 3,501 // Deaths:
62

As she waited to get off of the plane, Marissa Arnold turned off airplane mode and checked her phone. She got the news through a screenshot of an email from the university president.

Two extra weeks away from IU was enough, she had thought. Now it was official: classes were moving online.

She’d never been one to show her emotions — or at least not the sad ones — but she could feel the tears coming.

There’d be no dancing in “Cinderella,” which was months in the works already. No more goofing with friends before ballet class. She’d have to get used to dancing alone in her apartment, via Zoom.

Marissa was homeschooled in high school, so this was supposed to be her first time walking across a stage at graduation. Now, maybe not that either.

“Thanks for all the memories,” a fellow senior ballet student texted in their group chat.

Marissa had been in California for an audition. It was Friday. Marissa didn’t know it yet, but she had missed her last day of school.

Senior Marissa Arnold rehearses Oct. 8, 2019, during the dress rehearsal for “Dark Meets Light.” Arnold was cast in the spring ballet "Cinderella" before it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Izzy Myszak

Sunday, March 15 
Indiana Cases: 26 // Deaths: 6
U.S. Cases: 3,501 // Deaths:
62

Light gleamed red, blue and gold through the stained glass at First United Methodist Church. At 10 a.m., harpsichord music began to echo through the empty church.

“Good morning from wherever you’re watching us today,” Pastor Donna Goings said to the empty pews.

Goings, and the more than 200 online worshippers scattered across Bloomington and beyond, began to pray.

“Loving God, as we gather virtually today, unite us in the strength of your Spirit. In the midst of our doubts and worry, fatigue and confusion, remind us how your perfect love drives out fear.”

“When we are going stir-crazy, grant us your peace.”

Two women bring out multiple items from Tulip Tree Apartments on March 20 during the coronavirus pandemic. IU announced on March 15 that students must move out of all IU-affiliated residential housing. Claire Livingston

Tuesday, March 17 
Indiana Cases: 39 // Deaths: 8
U.S. Cases: 5,664 // Deaths:
97

Jordan Arnette stood on the steps outside Wright Quad on Tuesday morning, a rolled-up blue egg crate foam bed topper tucked under his arm.

“Shit,” the junior said. “They kicked me out.”

IU’s decision to close on-campus housing meant Jordan, a Wright resident assistant, wasn't just out of a place to live but out of a job as well.

He schlepped his belongings into a rented gray Nissan. He stuffed the foam topper in the trunk. Jordan is a film major, which would make his classes difficult to complete online. How would professors, who have their syllabuses planned months in advance, make the switch in two weeks?

He walked back into the silent residence hall, up the stairs and past the carefully curated bulletin boards. Past the roll of trash bags splayed on the floor. Past the solid wood doors his residents closed last week, rooms still filled with clothes and minifridges and textbooks. 

They thought they would be back soon.

Instead of showtimes plastered on the glowing marquee at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater on March 19, a quote from Mr. Rogers shined. It reads, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me. Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Alex Deryn


Friday, March 20
Indiana Cases: 124 // Deaths: 10
U.S. Cases: 17,439 // Deaths: 2
30

In between patients and paperwork, Mary Jo Shaughnessy sat at her sewing machine.

A nurse at the IU Health Center, Shaughnessy was tasked in January with fitting acute care employees with masks. But as the coronavirus continued to spread, she decided every staff member should be fitted.

Shaughnessy pulled out boxes of masks left over from the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. She called each staff member up to put on a mask and sprayed saccharine aerosol around them. If they could taste the sweet aerosol, she knew the mask wasn’t secure enough. 

When Shaughnessy unpacked another box of masks and put one on a health care worker’s face, the elastic snapped. The blue elastic bands had dried and hardened. 

She counted 200 masks with brittle elastic — too many to just throw out. So Shaughnessy hauled her sewing machine to work and began to stitch new elastic onto the masks.

Her masks will be stowed as back-ups in case the others run out. Shaughnessy has no idea when her masks will be pulled from storage, but she hopes it’s not soon.

The student who visited the health center a week earlier with possible symptoms got the results back: positive. 

Mary Jo Shaughnessy, a nurse at the IU Health Center, sits at her sewing machine to sew new elastic onto N95 masks. She counted 200 masks with dried, unusable elastic. Courtesy Photo

Saturday, March 21
Indiana Cases: 199 // Deaths: 21
U.S. Cases: 23,710 // Deaths: 2
98

He was on day 62 of monitoring the coronavirus but day 11 of holing up in his house. He expected he’d be there for weeks, maybe months, more.

After a week of hunching over a table while working from home, Graham McKeen, IU’s assistant director of public and environmental health, set up a pandemic response lab in his spare bedroom. He hauled his old desk up from the basement and rearranged the furniture. The bed blocked the door.

Most days, he was in sweatpants. The other day, it was Cookie Monster sweatpants. His wife called the room “virus jail.”

Three monitors and a TV followed 24-hour news on the coronavirus.

Like something out of a sci-fi movie or pulled from a hacker’s hideout, dotted maps of Indiana and a map of the world, covered in red, filled his screens. Maps charted vulnerable groups and population densities by county. The headline “Italy records biggest single-day jump in new coronavirus cases” was written in bold on a live CNN broadcast on the TV. Numbers of deaths climbed upward on his screen.

“We are in a new territory,” McKeen said. “And we’re just going to see exponential growth.”

Graham McKeen's pandemic response lab sits in his spare bedroom. As IU’s assistant director of public and environmental health, McKeen has spent months monitoring the coronavirus. Courtesy Photo

Monday, March 23
Indiana Cases: 361 // Deaths: 30
U.S. Cases: 42,751 // Deaths: 51
9

Before she left, Debra Hickman flicked off the lights. She knew it might be more than a week before she would see her rats again.

Director of the Laboratory Animal Resource Center and veterinarian at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis, Hickman oversees 70,000 rats, mice, fish, frogs and the occasional pig or dog. 

But for now, she’s spending most of her time working from home.

“I miss my rats,” she said.

Her team rotates which of the six veterinarians care for the animals each day. Hickman only sees them about once a week.

Hickman felt lucky. No one had asked her to scale down colonies or euthanize animals, like other research centers have had to.

And that may be good for the rest of us because Hickman expects that they may one day need the animals for research on the coronavirus.

Monday, March 23
Indiana Cases: 361 // Deaths: 30
U.S. Cases: 42,751 // Deaths: 5
19

An international student from New Delhi, India, IU senior Aman Kant always imagined putting on his cap and gown and posing for the quintessential graduation shot at Sample Gates. He’d hug his parents and take them to SmokeWorks for some old-fashioned American BBQ.

There would be none of that now.

When India lifts its travel restrictions, many fellow international students will head home. But Kant will stay put.

“There’s just too much uncertainty traveling right now,” he said.

One of Kant’s roommates tested positive for COVID-19 after he returned home to Michigan. Kant knew then that staying in Bloomington would be the best option to protect his grandparents back home.

Now he has time to go through his bucket list for his last semester in Bloomington: walking the B-Line, sitting in the arboretum, takeout from Osteria Rago.

Kant calls his parents almost every day and worries about how the coronavirus will spread through India.

The first sunny day that week, Kant decided he wanted to take pictures at Sample Gates with his girlfriend. The two posed beside the limestone arches, and Kant smiled at the camera, holding up a peace sign.

“It’s not the same as what I envisioned, but it was still pretty nice,” he said.

“I guess I can cross that one off now.”

Saturday, March 28
Indiana Cases: 1,510 // Deaths: 88
U.S. Cases: 121,105 // Deaths: 2,0
39

It was Little 500 qualification day in Bloomington, and the bleachers at Bill Armstrong Stadium were vacant. There was no hum from anxious racers or buzz from excited alumni. The grass field was combed and untouched. The scoreboard lights were dim. No one was on the track. 

Except Chris Motia.The IU junior pulled out his red Schwinn. He rode past a small crowd playing drinking games. It seemed like a game of pity rather than celebration.

Motia sped past a group of girls.

“Happy quals,” he called out.

“Awwwwww,” they replied.

The high was 75 and there was just enough sun for Motia to wear sunglasses. It was a perfect day for quals.

Motia pedaled around the track and handed off the bike to an imaginary teammate. He shuffled around the back wheel and, while keeping stride, hopped back on. Another successful transition.

When he swept around for his final lap, Motia cruised to the finish line. He pumped his fist in the air.

Junior Chris Motia holds up his bike in front of the stands at Bill Armstrong Stadium. Motia rode around the track on what would have been qualifications day. Courtesy Photo

Sunday, March 29
Indiana Cases: 1,781 // Deaths: 98
U.S. Cases: 140,223 // Deaths: 2,4
31

“Parties are not considered essential activity,” tweeted the IU Police Department.

The night before, IUPD shut down three parties. Twenty people had congregated on North Jordan Avenue. Closer to campus, two parties with 10 to 20 people had been shut down.

It was just days after Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a stay-at-home order.

Monday, March 30
Indiana Cases: 2,154 // Deaths: 112
U.S. Cases: 160,686 // Deaths: 2,98
5

On the way back to her apartment, junior Emma Lechner saw a white-haired, satchel-wearing man continuously crossing to different sides of Grant Street to avoid people in his path. 

Maybe I should be doing that, Lechner thought.

She hadn’t left her apartment in two weeks. Lechner and the old man were headed to the same apartment complex after dropping off rent in the same gold mail slot. They didn’t see each other often. In fact, Lechner didn’t see many people at all anymore. 

She felt robbed of her first year at IU. She spent her freshman and sophomore years commuting to Ivy Tech, which felt like an extension of high school. IU was her place to connect with people. Now that was gone.

But on the way to the mailbox and back, she took pictures of purple flowers. She noticed the blue sky. And she stopped in the middle of the road, just because she could. 

There were no cars, and she wasn’t afraid.

Purple flowers sprout from the ground as junior Emma Lechner picks up mail from her mailbox. Lechner hadn't left her apartment in two weeks. Courtesy Photo

Monday, April 6
Indiana Cases: 5,507 // Deaths: 173
U.S. Cases: 362,955 // Deaths: 10,74
8

Graham McKeen, one of IU's pandemic watchdogs, rolled out of bed, went to his coffee pot — set to brew Seattle’s Best at 5:50 a.m. — and headed back to the pandemic response lab in the spare room.

His day began with an 8 a.m. incident management team call with around 100 people, for whom he offered a rundown of coronavirus updates. They call him Mr. Sunshine because he ruins everyone’s day.

He ate lunch over the trash can and tried to avoid waking his 9-month-old daughter. When she was awake, her screams in the background sounded like a pterodactyl.

Just over two weeks ago, the number of cases in Indiana on his screen was hovering around 39. Today, that number was nearing 5,000. In Monroe County, the number of cases had surpassed 50 that morning.

But he expected the true number of cases to be far greater than what had been reported.

McKeen’s back ached from hunching over his computer. He didn’t have weekends anymore. Even though he was at home with them, he missed his kids.

He was exhausted. But he knew it was still just beginning.

A deer loiters on the street April 4 at North Woodlawn and 10th Street. The pandemic has quieted Bloomington. John Koo

Caroline Anders, Kristen Cervenak, Ellen Hine, Christine Stephenson, Tyler Tachman and Lyndsay Valadez contributed reporting.

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