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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Two Months Later: How Quickly COVID-19 Changed Life In Bloomington-Normal

Lincoln statue wears mask
Ashley Binkowski
Abraham Lincoln and pals David Davis and Jesse Fell sport some fashionable masks outside the BCPA in downtown Bloomington. The statue grouping is called "The Convergence of Purpose," by artist Andrew Jumonville.

The future is full of questions we don’t seem very close to answering. When will new coronavirus infections peak? When will the schools reopen? When can we go back to work?

Yet the recent past is a reminder of just how quickly things can change, especially in Bloomington-Normal. It’s easy to forget where we were just two months ago.

The recent past is a reminder of just how quickly things can change.

On Feb. 12, very few people in Bloomington-Normal were worried about the coronavirus. Practically no one was Googling it here. That day, when the McLean County Health Department shared a message on Facebook that Illinois was the first state to be able to run COVID-19 tests on its own, only one person liked the post: Jessica McKnight, the new administrator of the health department. She was only two weeks into the job.

The lack of public concern was understandable. After the outbreak in China, the first confirmed case in Illinois (a Chicagoan) became public Jan. 24. That day, rumors circulated in Bloomington-Normal that there was already a case here. When WGLT checked them out, a spokesperson for OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington replied: “We are hearing those same rumors, and thankfully there is no truth to them.” An OSF infection-prevention expert said the risk to most of the population remained low.

Others said the same thing. On Feb. 4, Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said campus leaders were closely monitoring the situation but that the “overall threat level to campus remains low.” ISU had already identified a small number of students, faculty, and staff who recently traveled to and from China. They had yet to show any symptoms.


February rolled along like normal. State Farm launched a remixed version of “Jake From State Farm” as a Super Bowl ad. “Parasite,” the Korean film with a random ISU reference in it, won the Oscar for Best Picture. Rivian let slip during a Forbes interview that its Normal manufacturing plant would be getting $750 million in total investment.

As late as Feb. 27, there was still optimism COVID-19 might never visit Bloomington-Normal.

“Now is the time to ensure we are practicing good infection control measures and preparing our community in the event COVID-19 makes its way here,” Melissa Graven, communicable disease supervisor at the McLean County Health Department, said in a press release Feb. 27.

Things began to escalate in early March.

On March 2, Unit 5 school district sent its first message to parents about the coronavirus. That day, ISU said it asked study-abroad students in Japan and Italy to come home. Italy was one of the hardest-hit countries. Some Redbirds decided to stay.  

That’s when the cancellations began. On March 3, State Farm suspended all non-essential business travel and said it was cleaning office spaces more frequently. The next day the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities organization said it was canceling a summer trip to Japan, conceding it was a “little conservative and that’s OK with us.”

Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
On March 4, the public found out about its first encounter with the coronavirus in Bloomington-Normal. A woman with COVID-19 flew back from Italy and then took Amtrak from Chicago to St. Louis.

On March 4, the public found out about its first encounter with the coronavirus in Bloomington-Normal. A woman with COVID-19 flew back from Italy and then took Amtrak from Chicago to St. Louis. The train stopped in Normal. (A 31-year-old from Normal later told WGLT he suspected he contracted the coronavirus that week after taking Amtrak to St. Louis to follow the ISU men’s basketball team at a conference tournament there.)


Everything changed the week of March 9. Stores were already cleaned out of hand sanitizer. Mark Jontry, the regional superintendent of schools for McLean County, fielded questions about what it would take to close schools. At that time, it was still expected to be a district-by-district decision. If a school did close, parents were told to expect at least a week.

The cancellations continued, and the economic hit started to be felt. Rivian on March 10 canceled all its upcoming events in major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. Special Olympics Illinois canceled its state basketball tournament in Bloomington-Normal and Peoria, impacting thousands of athletes, families, coaches, and volunteers.

Even during this what-day-is-it coronavirus whirlwind, March 11 was memorable. Nationally, actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they tested positive, and the NBA suspended its season after one of its players contracted it. In Illinois, the first cases of COVID-19 outside Chicago and Cook County were reported.

That day, ISU announced it would extend spring break by one week and shift to online classes until at least April 12 to stop coronavirus from spreading. (Ultimately, in-person classes would not resume this spring—or summer. Next time ISU students will be on campus is fall at the earliest.)

Google searches for “coronavirus” spiked in Bloomington-Normal on March 12. That day the ISU women’s basketball team lost out on a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, after its conference tournament in Moline was canceled. The NCAA Tournament itself was canceled later that day. (The NCAA later added an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes playing spring sports.)

State Farm, Bloomington-Normal’s largest employer, told workers they could work from home if they were able, likely limiting the spread in the community.


March 13 came the first of two Friday bombshells from Gov. JB Pritzker: every school in Illinois would be closed through March 30. That’s since been extended through at least April 30.

Four days later, on March 17, Central Illinois held one of its most unusual elections ever. Polling places were moved away from senior-living facilities to reduce the risk of exposure. Hand sanitizer was as ubiquitous as “I Voted” stickers. Candidates celebrated their wins privately, with no big watch parties taking place in McLean County.

All of the above happened without McLean County seeing a single confirmed case. That finally happened March 19, when public health officials announced a man in his 70s with no history of travel or exposure had tested positive.

Janet Mariani
Credit Ashley Binkowski / WGLT
Janet Mariani inside her business, Main Street Scoop, in downtown Bloomington.

The next day, Pritzker dropped his second Friday bombshell. His new stay-at-home order would go into effect March 21. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations remain open, but for many other businesses in Bloomington-Normal that was a stopping point for operations.

Grocery stores were crowded that weekend. On March 22, much of central Illinois was coated with some late-season snowfall. That day McLean County also heard about its first death from COVID-19: a woman in her 70s who tested positive the week before. Her name was never made public.

A few days later, State Farm paused all in-office work at its facilities across the country. Around this time an overflow tent was erected outside Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal to help triage possible COVID-19 patients as they arrived.

Developments did not slow as the weekend arrived. On March 27 Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion CARES Act coronavirus rescue package, with millions of dollars in assistance for individual residents, school districts, and other agencies. It won bipartisan support from Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and Reps. Darin LaHood and Rodney Davis.


Amid frustration about a lack of COVID-testing available in McLean County, Bloomington’s first drive-up testing site opened March 28 at the Fairgrounds (Interstate Center). It was one of only a handful of drive-up sites in Illinois, and the only one in central Illinois.

Three days later, McLean County saw its second death from COVID-19: a man in his 70s who tested positive in early March, with no history of travel or exposure. That day Pritzker extended his stay-at-home order until the end of April.

There were more and more major-event cancellations. Special Olympics Illinois canceled its Summer Games in Bloomington-Normal. WGLT canceled its own Summer Concert, replacing it with a Stay At Home Concert series. Every day another important part of the local economy shared how it’s been impacted—real estate agents, hair stylists, and wedding DJs. Those who can adapt do. A Facebook group called Blo-No Curbside Restaurants quickly grew to nearly 10,000 members eager to find out who’s open and what they’re serving.

The week of April 6 was a mixed bag. Temperatures climbed into the 70s, and those eager to get out of the house visited parks and the Constitution Trail. That prompted reminders—and now even signs—to those recreating to keep your distance from others, even on the trail.

April 7 was a stark reminder as to why. There were 14 new patients with COVID-19 reported in McLean County that day—still the highest one-day increase to date. The total is now 77.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.