Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Aug 1: The U.S. records 1,000 coronavirus deaths for 5th straight day. Nearly 8,000 people have evacuate their homes because of a wildfire burning east of Los Angeles. The GOP announces that its online convention will be closed to the press. The Department of Homeland Security reassigns Brian Murphy, the acting undersecretary for the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis,  after The Washington Post reported his office compiled intelligence briefings on journalists and protesters in Portland, Oregon, over the last few weeks.

From the Cutting Room Floor ...

After months of not gathering with more than one or two people, this mass gathering is a bit of a shock. Today the entire work force gets its back-to-school COVID tests. Hundreds and hundreds of us standing in August heat. Everyone is masked up but already looks tired and wary, spooked, like free-ranging bison corralled into a suspicious-looking pen after months on the open plains.

Here we are at the basketball coliseum, and even though I arrive early in the morning, the line wraps around the building. Rays of light shoot between the tree branches, making everything too-bright and sharply uncomfortable, especially after months and months of remaining mostly indoors, mostly isolated. Still, everyone tries to be pleasant as we shuffle forward, exchanging hellos and how-have-you-beens, each hoping to learn from the other people in line any information about the reopening of schools, malls, everything in a couple of weeks. So little has been shared, so much rumor, we whisper it like just the sharing is dangerous. And given the masks, even more misunderstandings are being generated right in front of me just because we grow tired of asking “what?!” over and over again.

When I get to the front of the line, a masked worker asks if I have been near anyone who has had COVID (no), if I have had any COVID symptoms (no), and if I have been inside the nearby nursing home (yes). That’s where my mother lives. So I receive a pink sticker, instead of a green one like the rest of the staff and faculty all around me, and with the firm two finger point by a nurse who can’t be older than any of my students, shunted off into a different line. There are few of us in this line. But it still feels vaguely ominous. And, for a few moments, we’re exposed to a direct blast of August heat and humidity.

They usher those of us with pink stickers inside the massive arena.  It’s a double-shock of refrigerated (and recycled) air and more people than I’ve seen in one place in five months. I flash my driver’s license to a woman sitting at a table behind a long box of index cards (index cards in 2020?! But everyone is holding iPads–what’s going on?!). She hands a paper card to me and orders me to the back of yet another line, this one nearly as long as the first one, zigzagging, pink stickers and green ones melded together again, strangely. It’s like the lines at an amusement park, but much much quieter. You can feel the tension—everyone is afraid to breathe—no one has been around this many people packed into lines in a long time. We see each other, despite our best efforts, as plague carriers.

The nurses, though, appear to be their usual selves. Their voices echo through the cavernous space building, an eerie reminder of the cheering that happens here in a normal year.

It takes a half-hour to weave through this line—and in the meantime we’ve each taken, what, 1,000 breaths indoors? … 2,000?—and now I’m sitting in a folding plastic chair. Two nurses, clothed in every health covering the university could afford, each armed with Swabs of Death, the biggest things I’ve ever seen jammed up a person’s nostrils. And they do not hold back, scraping each nostril until I swear they tap the back of my retina, like our brains are being extracted before mummification, like a low-budget dystopian thriller. I cough and sneeze, of course. The woman sitting defenseless to my left does too, simultaneously. And the defenseless man to her left. In fact, there are dozens of coughs and sneezes, as we all feel about as uncomfortable as we imagine you could feel without yelping in pain. Do the nurses like this?

The whole process made me wonder how, in other countries, even in a large number of American cities, the quick, self-contained drive-through test has been working for months, while here we are standing in multiple lines, and then at the end potentially exposing everyone around to the virus as we gag and sputter from a brain cavity search. “This is all just health theater,” enters my mind before I shove it down.

We have no choice about doing any of this, so the cynical thoughts have to go. We want to keep our jobs. And, despite warnings, despite even what other universities small or large are doing or saying, this one insists that it must, for this organism’s financial health, open to tens of thousands of tuition-paying students and the tens of thousands of us who work with, alongside, and for them.

Read more
TODAY. Houston Doctor In Viral Video Doubles Down On Hydroxychloroquine Claims | TODAY, 2020.

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Edelman, Gilad. “‘Covid Parties’ Are Not a Thing.” Wired, July 2, 2020.
Goodman, Peter S., Patricia Cohen, and Rachel Chaundler. “European Workers Draw Paychecks. American Workers Scrounge for Food.” The New York Times, July 3, 2020, sec. Business.
Henderson, Alex. “Betsy DeVos Accused of Diverting Coronavirus Relief Funds from Poor Students to Wealthy Private Schools: ‘As Immoral as It Is Illegal’.”, July 23, 2020.
Kim, Soo. “Kentucky Bar Defies Mask Order: ‘We Are Americans—We’re Going to Do What We Want.’” Newsweek, July 14, 2020.
Schladen, Marty. “Ohio Democrats Frustrated by Reluctance Toward Mask Order Enforcement.” ColumbusUnderground.Com (blog), July 13, 2020.
Chapman, Matthew. “Trump ‘Fixer’ Barr Has ‘Devastated’ the Justice Department and It Will Take Years to Repair the Damage: Report.” Rawstory, August 1, 2020.
Garrett, Laurie. “America’s Schools Are a Moral and Medical Catastrophe.” Foreign Policy, July 24, 2020.
Guthrie, Joanne, and Katherine Ralston. “USDA ERS – School Breakfast Program,” October 1, 2020.
Park, Young Joon, Young June Choe, Ok Park, Shin Young Park, Young-Man Kim, Jieun Kim, Sanghui Kweon, et al. “Early Release – Contact Tracing during Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, South Korea, 2020.” Emerging Infectious Disease Journal 26, no. 10 (July 16, 2020).
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* 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.