COVID-19 Narratives (9): From Nebraska to New Jersey and Back

From Nebraska to New Jersey and Back: College Life Under Pandemic
Catherine Lentsch

The COVID-19 pandemic first became a reality for me when I was flying back from my home state of Nebraska to New Jersey after spring break. I was chatting with members of the Columbia University baseball team on our plane when they received a notification that Columbia was canceling school for the next few days, and would then be holding online classes for the next two weeks. We were all a bit shocked. It was a bit hard to believe that they’d cancel school over a virus. Nor was it clear what this meant for the future.

Surprisingly, my own university, Felician, didn’t close until several days after other colleges in the area had shut down. At that point, I was in my dorm taking online classes, and I started paying closer attention to the news than I usually do. One of the most impactful stories I read was on Twitter, from doctors in Italy, describing how many deaths they were seeing every day, how they were turning those too far gone away from the hospitals, and how they were running out of supplies.

The news startled me out of my wits: I called my parents, looking for re-assurance that the pandemic wouldn’t become as bad here as it was there. My parents reassured me that our country had more resources and hospitals than Italy. Yet I knew that we were unprepared. I learned from an article of Tomas Pueyo’s (which we’d read in class) that our country was taking more of a mitigation than suppression strategy, in other words, containing the virus after it had already entered the country and spread.

Things started to develop rather quickly at that point. Soon enough, Felician insisted that we vacate our dorms altogether, so I was forced to go back home to Nebraska. Online instruction had been pretty difficult for me; I lost focus a lot, and had been far more engaged learning in the classroom. I had procrastinated on a lot of assignments due in part to lack of motivation, and (when I got home) due to a particularly busy work schedule. There was also the difficulty of not seeing my friends again until fall at the latest.

Anyway, on getting back home to Nebraska, I was hired at Baker’s, a local grocery store, as an online shopper. I was glad to be working at this job because it helped me bring in money for my family, as both of my parents were now unemployed. My job requires long hours and physical labor, but there’s little contact with customers unless they’re asking where to find a particular item. Two weeks ago [in mid-May], all grocery stores and other essential businesses that remained open in Nebraska announced that all employees would be required to wear masks and practice social distancing. I found social distancing hard. On the one hand, I really wanted to see my friends. On the other, I didn’t want to expose them, as I had a high chance of being exposed to the coronavirus while working at Baker’s.

Nebraska COVID-19 Cases Surpass 900 With 20 Deaths | netnebraska.org

At first, I was really anxious about the coronavirus and what the future held for us. I guess I had two sets of reactions. One was all-out fear, as when I’d read that the restrictions wouldn’t be lifted for another year and a half. Then there was the annoyance or demoralization: the coronavirus had wrecked my freshman college experience, my summer, and for all I knew, much of my future.

Some of my anxiety was allayed by the insight provided by my Philosophy 100 class, where we studied the pandemic. I learned a lot, in particular, from a panel discussion we had with Dr. Suleman Khawaja, a local front-line physician, who answered a lot of the questions I had. I no longer think of the virus as “unpredictable,” any more than I think of the flu as “unpredictable.” Dr. Khawaja also explained the value of the use of masks, which I found helpful, as I’d constantly run into arguments at work about whether or not they help. It turns out to be very hard to find reliable, factual news about COVID-19; there are so many false and contradictory reports all over the Internet.

As the pandemic continues, I haven’t been paying attention to minutiae as I was earlier, focusing only on the larger issues. On May 4th, Nebraska’s governor, Pete Ricketts, reopened businesses–restaurants, salons/barber shops, tattoo parlors, massage therapy businesses, etc.–along with places of worship, but all with restrictions.

Restaurants are allowed to occupy 50% of their capacity, but only groups of six may sit together, and all staff must wear masks. Places of worship are not subject to the rule that limits gatherings to ten people, but require worshipers to sit with their household at a distance of six feet from members of other households, and with no objects or food to be passed around. Other businesses are subject to the ten-person rule. As far as I can tell, most businesses and members of the community have followed the rules. The governor’s rationale was to beat the virus by opening things up as slowly as possible. I agree with the view he’s taken that a lot of this is the community’s responsibility, and that those who have symptoms or are part of at-risk populations should protect themselves and others by staying home.

Honestly, my feelings about this pandemic have been all over the place. I’m hopeful for the future, but preparing myself for the worst. All of our lives have undergone dramatic change, and nothing seems certain at this point. The only constant is hope and prayer for the world, which is what I’ll continue to practice.


Catherine “Cat” Lentsch is an incoming sophomore at Felician University, majoring in Biology and Pre-Medical Studies. If not for the pandemic, she’d be playing middleback on the Felician University volleyball team.

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