BLOOMINGTON — Do you remember the first time you heard the word “coronavirus”?
Scientists have known since the 1960s about human coronaviruses, named for crown-like spikes on their surfaces, so it’s possible you heard the term years ago. However, the novel coronavirus known as SARS-Cov-2 was first identified this year. Authorities in Wuhan, China, confirmed that they were treating dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause on Dec. 31. Chinese state media reported the first death caused by the virus Jan. 11; authorities closed off Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people, on Jan. 23.
You might have read about the virus when the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30 or when WHO announced in February that it would refer to the disease as COVID-19. By then, cases were already confirmed in the United States. The first case in Illinois was a woman who returned to Chicago in mid-January after a holiday trip to Wuhan, where she cared for her elderly father.
Six months ago, coronavirus became a household word and inescapable force in our lives. It’s impossible to know the full scope of the ways that our world will be changed by COVID-19, now associated with the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans. More than 286,000 Illinoisans have had confirmed cases, and more than 8,500 of them have died.
Across the state, businesses suffered massive revenue losses and some closed their doors because of the inescapable economic ripple effects. Unemployment skyrocketed. Children lost months of learning from their teachers in a classroom and running through the playground with their friends. Tensions grew from deep divisions, in politics and society, about which precautions are appropriate and which are going too far.
But there have also been opportunities for creativity, kindness and strength, in Central Illinois and beyond.
Food banks served record numbers of people, aided by volunteers who risked their own health to help others. Children and adults alike showed their capacity to adapt, learning and working from home with the use of new technology. In the fraught early days of the pandemic, people across the state placed colorful hearts in their windows to show support for medical and essential workers.
“Optimistically, we are resilient people,” said Normal Mayor Chris Koos. “We’re innovative people. People have done amazing things to look out for each other, and that gives me a lot of optimism.”
The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in McLean County on March 19, days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker first announced a closure of schools and bars and restaurants that was intended to be temporary.
President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency on March 13, and Illinois reported its first coronavirus-related death March 17.
In the following months, as cases grew across the region and state, Pritzker would issue a statewide stay-at-home order and extend it until the end of May before rolling out a five-phase reopening plan. Face masks, now mandated at Illinois businesses and facilities, were first required May 1.
“One of the first lessons learned is that we need to be flexible,” said Brent Paterson, Illinois State University assistant to the president. “We need to be able to adapt based on the situational awareness at any particular time.”
Information evolved rapidly as the disease spread across the country. ISU leaders met each morning to discuss plans, sometimes developing a response by noon only to be forced to scrap it as more information developed.
As of Saturday, McLean County had confirmed a total of 3,231 cases of COVID-19, with the largest age group being people in their 20s. A total of 3,006 people have been removed from isolation and are considered recovered. The county has reported 23 coronavirus-related deaths.
The county’s case numbers ticked upward in July, which officials attributed to an increase in travel and gatherings, but the biggest surge took place after students returned to Illinois State University in August.
On Aug. 17, ISU and Illinois Wesleyan University resumed classes. On that day, the county had reported a total of 776 cases and 16 deaths since March. A month later on Sept. 17, the totals were at 3,025 and 19 deaths.
Responding to a local increase in cases and news that anticipated testing supplies were being rerouted by the federal government, ISU in early August moved the bulk of its classes — more than 80% — to a remote-learning format.
Still, university officials said, students violated guidelines by gathering in large groups, prompting Normal leaders in late August to limit gatherings near campus to 10 or fewer people. Koos and Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner both issued stern warnings last month to businesses that were not complying with Illinois Department of Public Health requirements.
Asked last week about what town leaders learned in the early days of the pandemic, Koos said one of the biggest lessons was to be more proactive.
“There’s always things when you look back you wish you had done sooner,” he said. “It’s easier to correct in hindsight than going forward. Overall, I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job.”
In some cases, Koos said, there were times when the town could have taken action on certain issues sooner. “I think we were trying to err on the side of personal freedom, and maybe we should have acted quicker,” he said.
Renner said Bloomington could have been quicker to introduce and enforce some guidelines for businesses and social distancing, but added that second-guessing at this point “is probably not terrible productive.”
“What I’ve seen is that nobody really could have predicted the scope of this or how this was going to happen,” he said, later adding: “This is just a whole new world.”
Bloomington and Normal have been in close contact with the United States Conference of Mayors as well as other city government organizations to discuss ways to respond to the virus, he said.
In general, he said, the past six months have reinforced the need to be nimble and flexible when addressing a crisis.
“There is no one-size-fits-all or magical set of policies that you implement to deal with a worldwide pandemic,” Renner said.
Paterson, of ISU, said the team there quickly realized the value of communication with increasingly anxious students, parents and faculty.
“You can’t overcommunicate, even when there’s nothing new to say,” he said. “When they’re not hearing something, they think the worst or make things up. It’s important that we are communicating with all those groups.”
Hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans lost their jobs because of the pandemic, with unemployment reported at 11% for August. Local economic leaders said there is no doubt that businesses have suffered, but noted that Bloomington-Normal industries also demonstrated resilience.
Patrick Hoban, CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, said McLean County’s economy did not experience the same level of job loss as most metro areas in Illinois.
“The largest surprise is the rebound in retail sales,” said Hoban. “Our models projected far worse than our reality.”
Collaboration between community leaders, elected officials, private companies and nonprofit organizations far exceeded expectations, leading to the creation of BN Prepared, a massive database showcasing resources for employees, employers, businesses, teachers.
Hoban noted that there are some areas for improvement, such as creating an easier way for businesses to access state and federal grant applications.
The pandemic also highlighted the need for people to pause and reflect on the community’s state of preparedness, said Charlie Moore, president and CEO of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce.
“Had we had any indication of what COVID-19 was going to do, it would have allowed us to stop, pause and perhaps really spend time to focus on how we need to pivot and plan for diversifying revenue streams, watching expenses, marketing and communicating, and working more closely together as one business community,” said Moore.
Moving forward, Moore and Hoban said, the pandemic has created a new standard for remote workers.
“Six months from now, we believe we will see a new standard for remote workers,” said Hoban. “We are optimistic about the continued resilience of our industries, but worried about the mental health of our families if remote working, remote education, and prolonged social distancing continue.
“Our community’s greatest strength is our culture, and we hope our residents can experience everything Bloomington-Normal has to offer, together, sooner than later.”
Working from home could change how businesses operate, Moore said. It is possible many of the industries in larger cities such as Chicago no longer require employees to live nearby, and Bloomington-Normal could become an attractive destination for those workers.
“I think there’s an opportunity for Bloomington-Normal to really sell itself to individuals, families and tele-communicators,” he said. “I think we have a lot of amazing potential and time to shine to shine to show that we have the advantage.”
At the same time, Moore worries about the short-term effects of the pandemic as it stretches into the winter months. There are many McLean County businesses, such as restaurants and bars, dealing with pandemic-driven restrictions about social distancing and other factors.
Many establishments pivoted to outdoor seating during the warmer months, but Moore worries that they will experience more hardships due to the loss of outdoor seating during the winter.
“Winter is going to be tough,” said Moore.
McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight had only been on the job for two and a half months before the pandemic swept through Illinois. She had to learn about the community quickly while being thrust into a crisis that required the health department’s leadership.
“Obviously, there are things I look back on and just wish I had the power to make better,” said McKnight. “If any of us could wave a magic wand and make COVID go away tomorrow, we definitely would.”
McKnight said that she is pleased with how the health department has responded to the pandemic and its ability to make adjustments and improvements as needed. Recently, she said, the department used grant funding to hire dozens of additional contact tracers, but began cross-training them to handle case investigation after realizing a demand for that.
“We’ve learned a lot about the virus through science over time,” she said. “Because this is a new virus, we’re learning things every day.”
Progress continues in other areas, too. Leaders at McLean County Unit 5 and Bloomington District 87 announced last week they are preparing for students to return to in-person classes — with a phased-in, hybrid approach — later this fall. At ISU, numbers of new cases have fallen sharply after the initial spike in the first month of classes.
The university is preparing for a spring semester that “looks very much like our fall semester,” said Paterson. This will include increased testing, and he said the university is close to clinching a formal agreement to obtain proper lab equipment for saliva-based testing being used by the University of Illinois.
Paterson marveled at how people have adjusted to remote learning and teaching.
While it is a new experience for everyone, he said, people have remained resilient and have pushed through many of the challenges presented, including access to educational tools such as wireless internet and other technology.
ISU is also exploring ways it can continue engaging on-campus students that go beyond Zoom and other online forms of communication, he said.
McKnight said she expects significant progress against COVID-19 to be made six months from now. This includes the community’s willingness to comply with social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
In the short term, she is worried for this fall with the flu season and holiday-related gatherings.
“We want people to do those as safely as possible,” she said, “but there is potential that we will see another surge in cases due to people gathering and loosening up their vigilance on those precautions.”
PHOTOS: Recognizing essential workers in the pandemic’s early days
Contact Allison Petty at (217) 421-6986. Follow her on Twitter: @AllisonAPetty
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