BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Spring break beckoned, flights were booked. But with one official email after another, it all began to crumble.
At Indiana University’s flagship campus, with more than 30,000 undergraduate students, classes moved online. Students hastily packed and moved home to their parents, their newfound freedom jerked away. Some were left stranded and far from home.
There’s something transitory, anyway, about a college town. It’s a four-year bubble between childhood and responsibility, but the moments and memories inside it last forever. College is, more than anything, a communal experience. It's a place of mentorships and marriages, fraternities and teams. When the coronavirus pandemic ruptured that bubble, heartbreak took over the town in a wave. The town didn’t just shut down, it emptied out.
After classes were canceled came the unthinkable: March Madness. Recitals. Research. Graduation. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.
Days bled together. Time plodded on.
A deer loitered in front of the arboretum on a street once choked with cars. The city’s square was eerily deserted. The redbuds bloomed, but in the limestone buildings, most of the doors were locked. Even as the greenery sprung to life, the city felt dead.
In a place where so many feel invincible, students grappled to make sense of their place in a surreal new locked-down world, as an idyllic college town trudged through the stages of grief.
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Tuesday, March 10: Coronas all around
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: Handwashing
Indiana cases: 11 // Deaths: 2
U.S. cases: 1,205 // Deaths: 37
A student lathered her hands in a Ballantine Hall bathroom, two days before IU shuttered its doors. She soaped each finger of her left hand, then her right, then rubbed her palms together one last time.
She rinsed, squirted another dollop of soap, then began lathering once again.
Satisfied, she looked at both her hands and turned to the girl 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: Another day, Mr. Clean
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.
Friday, March 13: Flu-like symptoms
Indiana cases: 15 // Deaths: 4
U.S. cases: 2,163 // Deaths: 49
The College Mall shopping center 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 downtown bars to pick up girls tottering on high heels. There was no line at Taco Bell. Only two people sat in the Z&C sushi restaurant, laughing. One of the lights on the university's iconic Sample Gates was out.
A student went to the student health center with flu-like symptoms. A nurse sent a test for coronavirus to a private lab. The student went into isolation at home.
Sunday, March 15: She missed her last day
Indiana cases: 26 // Deaths: 7
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.
She’d had a feeling it would happen but pushed it to the back of her mind. Now it was official: Classes were moving online.
She’d never been one to show her emotions — at least not the sad ones — but she could feel the tears coming.
There’d be no “Cinderella” ballet performance, which was months in the works already. No more goofing with friends before ballet class. No in-person help from instructors. 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, hoping to dance professionally in a business that now had no immediate future. She’d danced for about five minutes — just a combination or two — before the director had to run off for another meeting.
“We’ll be in touch,” the director had said.
“It’ll be okay,” her mom cooed through the phone as Marissa walked to her next gate, sobbing.
Marissa didn’t know it yet, but she had missed her last day of school.
Tuesday, March 17: 'They kicked me out'
Indiana cases: 39 // Deaths: 10
U.S. cases: 5,664 // Deaths: 97
Jordan Arnette stood outside Wright Quadrangle on Tuesday morning, a rolled-up blue egg crate foam bed topper tucked under his arm.
“S---,” he said. “They kicked me out.”
Jordan is a junior and a resident assistant. IU’s decision to close on-campus housing meant he wasn't just out of a place to live but out of a job as well.
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He schlepped his belongings into a rented gray Nissan and stuffed the foam topper in the trunk. Jordan is a film major, which would make his classes difficult to complete online. How would professors make the switch in two weeks?
He walked back into the silent residence hall, up the stairs and past the 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 mini-fridges and textbooks.
They all thought they would be back soon.
Friday, March 20: New elastic for old masks
Indiana cases: 124 // Deaths: 12
U.S. cases: 17,439 // Deaths: 230
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 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 aerosol, she knew the mask wasn’t secure enough.
When Shaughnessy unpacked another box of masks and put one on a healthcare worker’s face, the elastic snapped. The blue bands were dried and hardened. Every time she put them on someone, they’d break.
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.
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Her masks will be stowed as back-ups in case the other masks 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 March 13 with symptoms got the results back: positive.
Saturday, March 21: 'Virus jail'
Indiana cases: 199 // Deaths: 26
U.S. cases: 23,710 // Deaths: 298
He was on Day 62 of monitoring the coronavirus, but Day 11 holed up in his house. 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 room. 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.
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Like something pulled from a hacker’s hideout, dotted maps of Indiana and of the world filled his screens. Maps charted vulnerable groups and population densities. The headline “Italy records biggest single-day jump in new coronavirus cases” was written in bold on a live CNN broadcast. Death tolls climbed.
“We are in a new territory,” McKeen said. “And we’re just going to see exponential growth.”
Monday, March 23: Daddy Day Care
Indiana cases: 361 // Deaths: 44
U.S. cases: 42,751 // Deaths: 519
Angel Escobedo had a different job now. The IU wrestling season was over. Now the head coach coordinated a small but daunting program: “Daddy Day Care.”
He colored pictures of the Little Mermaid. He helped his kids learn to count. Malachi was up to 30 and Saniyah had reached 15. They’d been revisiting the ABCs.
He played a lot of Bad Guy. Malachi and Saniyah, 4 and 3, dressed up in Power Ranger costumes. They tore around the house as he pretended to take away their superpowers. He was finally captured and sentenced to jail in a corner.
Escobedo was a four-time All-American, three-time Big Ten champion and an NCAA national champion. When he was in jail, his kids beat him up.
Monday night, Malachi climbed onto his father’s lap. He’d caught him again, staring at his phone.
“Daddy, you’re watching wrestling.”
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So, it was decided. Escobedo had been off of the mat long enough.
“I want to teach you some moves,” he told Malachi.
Escobedo called in his wife. He demonstrated a simple two-legged takedown on her, followed by a front headlock.
Then, it was Malachi’s turn. He drove Escobedo to the ground as he mirrored his father’s maneuvers.
“Pin!” Saniyah yelped, signaling a 4-year old’s triumph over one of the most decorated wrestlers in Indiana history.
Escobedo always tries to look at the positives. His new prospects were on the small side, but they were quick. They lacked discipline, but they had a raw tenacity.
“I’m going to be a better Power Ranger now,” Malachi said.
Monday, March 23: Stranded on campus
Indiana cases: 361 // Deaths: 44
U.S. cases: 42,751 // Deaths: 519
Aman Kant had time now to go through his bucket list for his last semester in Bloomington: walking the B-Line trail, sitting in the campus arboretum, eating takeout from one of his favorite restaurants, Feast.
Kant called his parents almost every day and worried about how the coronavirus would spread through India. A student from New Delhi, he couldn’t go home. Travel restrictions were in place, and it would be too dangerous for his grandparents there, anyway.
He was one of the lucky ones. He still had a place to stay off campus and friends around him. Some international students were stranded with nowhere to go.
“It’s definitely been a tough time for a lot of us,” he said.
The first sunny day in a week, Kant decided he didn’t want to miss one of the most quintessential IU memories. He headed with his girlfriend to the iconic Sample Gates, which for many is the front door to campus.
He wished his parents were there with him, with their arms around his waist, but this would do.
The two posed beside the limestone arches, and Kant smiled at the camera, holding up a peace sign.
Saturday, March 28: Little 500 quals
Indiana cases: 1,510 // Deaths: 121
U.S. cases: 121,105 // Deaths: 2,039
It was Little 500 qualification day in Bloomington and the bleachers at Bill Armstrong Stadium were vacant. "Little Five" draws 25,000 fans to Bloomington each year for the largest collegiate bike race in the country and the biggest party weekend of the year. But on this quals day, there was no hum from anxious racers or buzz from excited alumni. The grass field was pristine. The scoreboard was dim. IU junior Chris Motia pulled out his red Schwinn. He rode past a small crowd playing beer dive. 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.
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 into the air.
Sunday, March 29: Parties aren't essential
Indiana cases: 1,781 // Deaths: 135
U.S. cases: 140,223 // Deaths: 2,431
“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, according to news reports. Two other parties with 10 to 20 people had been shut down.
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Monday, March 30: Crossing the street
Indiana cases: 2,154 // Deaths: 158
U.S. cases: 160,686 // Deaths: 2,985
On the way back to her apartment, junior Emma Lechner saw a white-haired man continuously crossing the street to avoid people in his path.
Maybe I should be doing that, Lechner thought.
She hadn’t left her apartment in two weeks. She felt robbed of her first year at IU. She spent her freshman and sophomore years commuting to community college, 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 hyacinths. 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.
Wednesday, April 1: Missing the lab rats
Indiana cases: 3,029 // Deaths: 202
U.S. cases: 212,814 // Deaths: 4,746
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.
She loved to watch them complete tasks and scurry back to her, noses twitching.
“You have to wait,” she’d tell them.
Hickman felt lucky. The rats were checked on every day. Her team members took turns. No one had asked her to scale down colonies, euthanize animals or make tough calls on which ones to keep, like other research centers have had to do.
It was a good thing, because Hickman suspected that one day rats would be needed for coronavirus research.
But today, she just missed them.
Monday, April 6: Mr. Sunshine?
Indiana cases: 5,489 // Deaths: 276
U.S. cases: 362,955 // Deaths: 10,748
Graham McKeen 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 baby 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 around 5,000. Monroe County had more than 50 confirmed cases that morning. He expected the true number was far greater.
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.
Numbers of cases and deaths related to COVID-19 are preliminary numbers retrieved from the Indiana State Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on April 10. These numbers are subject to change as information becomes available.
Caroline Anders, Kristen Cervenak, Ellen Hine, Christine Stephenson, Tyler Tachman and Lyndsay Valadez contributed reporting. This story was produced in partnership with the Media School at Indiana University.