Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Mar 20: Worldwide coronavirus death toll passes 10,000. Senate Republicans unveil a plan to send a check for $1200 to most adults, with $500 for every child, and loans for small businesses. Trump announces that the U.S. Department of Education will waive interest on student loans and that borrowers could suspend loan payments for at least 60 days “without penalty.” The Governors of New York and California issue  stay-at-home orders statewide. News spreads about the two Republican senators who dumped stocks after coronavirus briefings. The IRS announces that Tax Day is postponed until July 15.  Health and Human Services airlifts 500,000 COVID tests from Italy. Indiana postpones its presidential primary to June 2. The U.S. closes the border with Mexico. Stocks continue to plummet. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio calls the city, “the epicenter of the crisis” in the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Defense coordinate an airlift of 500,000 swab and sample kits commonly used in COVID-19 diagnostic tests from Copan Diagnostics, a private company located in Italy.*

From the Cutting Room Floor...

We have been told that our University is going virtual for the remainder of the term. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other, we have five days to set up new home offices and figure out how to teach hundreds of students. With no training. And no equipment. Online courses take months to set-up. We have five days.

We’re not allowed on campus. But I have no way to teach online without a computer (duh). So I illicitly return to campus under cover of darkness and clean out my office today. Along with the electronics, I stuff as many books as I can into a box, a container of hand sanitizer that I randomly had stashed in my desk, my extra pair of cheap, purple reading glasses, my coffee mug. For a second, I sit down on my chair and look out the window at the big oak tree outside. It sways and bends in the strong wind. I worked for ten years in a windowless closet before I got this office. Seriously. This space of mine is still small, maybe 8×10 feet, but I love it. I love the books that climb the wall, the collection of strange objects that students have given me over the years (a pokemon figure, a troll doll, a pair of dog tags). The post-it stuck to the wall where I scribbled, “I will not say anything inappropriate today.” The laminated pages I keep by my desk on how to transliterate my Russian and Arabic research into English letters. My print of a favorite Ilya Repin painting, its enslaved Volga boatmen straining from the shore to pull a barge upriver. 



I find it truly sad that the museums and libraries of the world are closing. Last summer, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we took our daughters to see a Maplethorpe exhibit at the Guggenheim museum in New York City. They were shocked, as one always is with Maplethorpe, but his photographs led to a whole day of careful conversation about sexuality, race, and the role of art in mediating humanity’s biggest questions. We took the subway down to Greenwich Village to see the LGBTQ+ march on Christopher Street. We talked about the problems that we saw in Maplethorpe’s photographs of black, male bodies—sexualized and phallic. Maplethorpe was 42 when he died of HIV/AIDS, I told them, a disease for which there still is no vaccine. Museums and libraries are the places that force us into new realities, that teach how to understand our own experiences and the experiences of others, that give us language for navigating love, anger, loss, joy, injury, pain. These are the places where civilization is contested and mediated. If there is any time that we need the museums, it is now.[1] And yet, it is clear that there will be some smaller galleries that will never be able to reopen.[2

I read this morning that New York state processed 10,000 additional COVID tests in the last twenty-four hours. The news is that New York is now at nearly 8,000 coronavirus cases—a number ten times higher than earlier in the week. NYC alone is at 5,600 cases.[3]

The same thing is happening in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington DC –all have issued stay-at-home orders to people who do not qualify as “essential workers.” Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and others have called up their national guards to help distribute medical supplies.[4] Like a tidal wave brought in by a tsunami, it was slow at first but now threatens to swallow the house.

I glance at my phone and realize I’ve been sitting here for forty minutes. Usually this building is abuzz on a Friday, filled with students trying to get last-minute dispensation for unscheduled absences and make-up exams. But there is not a sound in the building now. Actually, that’s not true — I can hear someone else also desperately rifling though their office, trying to figure out how they’re going to teach an online course for the first time with no training and no equipment. The fact that I can hear them at all means the HVAC has already been shut off for the building.

I touch my old desk that I got from the furniture surplus warehouse years ago, stained with coffee rings and pen marks. It smarts to walk away, strangely. This moment of leaving feels official somehow. An omen. A mile marker. But we’re only supposed to be gone a few weeks until the “curve” is flattened. We might even have to transition back to in-person teaching after scrambling to teach online.

When I get home I read that Congress has passed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” after a week of debate. According to this second piece of coronavirus legislation, the government will support paid leave, free coronavirus testing, expanding food assistance, and will give money to states for additional fighting of the pandemic.[5] While the emergency lasts, unemployed folks are supposed to receive around $600 a week. Conservative media complain, like they always do, that these giveaways encourage laziness. I collected welfare and foodstamps when I had my oldest daughter by myself at the age of twenty. I worked full time and was in school. The foodstamps and welfare, when added to my job income, were just enough to pay the rent, the electricity, take care of my baby, and feed me one meal a day. One meal a day. I never went to parties, never bought myself clothes, never paid anyone to cut my hair. Never have I worked so hard. There was nothing lazy about it.

And I can tell you that the people who need $600 a week to keep their family alive are not the ones who are currently acting as though this virus is something to be ignored while they enjoy their Spring Break.

Students know what to do with this down time. Not take the coronavirus seriously, that’s what: the pictures are all over the internet of spring breakers deciding that coronavirus isn’t going to happen to them. Or, just as troublingly, they don’t care if it does. Partying takes precedence.[6] This seems like a typical ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem caused by the ordinary capitalist impulse. Students want to drink and act however they want to—they don’t believe they will get the virus or, if they do, they don’t believe it will be serious. All along the virus has been portrayed as a disease of the elderly. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, and bars see the young kids at Daytona Beach and Miami as walking ATMs. The Florida governor does not want to risk the cashflow and jobs that would be lost from closing the beaches. It’s hard to fault the students, though. Spending a few days spent in a drunken haze at the beach has become a requirement of youth and a tragedy if missed, a story they will tell on all their class reunions, the fulcrum upon which pivots their American lives.

[1] And not the opioid-pushing You-Know-Whos. Please, not even during the pandemic.

[2] American for the Arts, “The Economic Impact of Coronavirus on the Arts and Cultural Sector,” Americans for the Arts, 03/17/2020.

[3] “43 Coronavirus Deaths and Over 5,600 Cases in N.Y.C.,” The New York Times, March 20, 2020,

[4] Martha Quillin and Lucille Sherman, “As Coronavirus Keeps Spreading across NC, National Guard Activated and Citizens Stock Up,” newsobserver, March 20, 2020,

[5] “House Democrats Introduce Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” Ways and Means Committee – Democrats, March 11, 2020,

[6] Madison Hirneisen, “‘If I Get Corona, I Get Corona’: ‘Selfish’ Spring-Breakers Spark Fierce Backlash,” Washington Times, March 19, 2020,

Read more
C-SPAN. White House Coronavirus News Conference, 2020.

Conservative television news host, Bill O’Reilly,  on the Media’s Delusional Pandemic Reporting, March 20, 2020.


*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

During the briefing, Gaynor explains that he was not not invited to join the White House Coronavirus Task Force until “earlier” in the week and FEMA did not host its first “interagency synchronization call” until March 20, the same day as the House briefing.  – House Committee on Oversight and Reform. “FEMA Briefs Oversight Committee on Administration’s Coronavirus Response,” March 20, 2020.
New York Times. “43 Coronavirus Deaths and Over 5,600 Cases in N.Y.C.” The New York Times, March 20, 2020, sec. New York.
Harris, Shane, Greg Miller, Josh Dawsey, and Ellen Nakashima. “U.S. Intelligence Reports from January and February Warned about a Likely Pandemic.” Washington Post, March 20, 2020.
Sandler, Rachel. “States And Cities Begin To Close Bars And Restaurants Amid Coronavirus Outbreak.” Forbes, March 15, 2020.
House Democrats. “House Democrats Introduce Families First Coronavirus Response Act.” Ways and Means Committee – Democrats, March 11, 2020.
ACI. “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Airport Business: Preliminary Assessment (20 March 2020).” Montreal, Canada: Airport Councils International, March 20, 2020.
Block, Allan M. “In the Phoenix Area, We Are in a Lull before the Coronavirus Storm,” March 20, 2020.
Christopher, Ben. “Who Is an ‘Essential’ Worker during the California Coronavirus Lockdown?” Cal Matters, March 20, 2020.
Dong, Xiang, Yi-yuan Cao, Xiao-xia Lu, Jin-jin Zhang, Hui Du, You-qin Yan, Cezmi A. Akdis, and Ya-dong Gao. “Eleven Faces of Coronavirus Disease 2019.” Allergy 75, no. 7 (March 20, 2020): 1699–1709.
Department of Labor. “Unemplyment Insurance Weekly Claims,” March 19, 2020.
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Additional Links

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.