Haunted but still sane: Inhabitants of ‘ghost town’ MSU cope with isolation

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With no in-person classes and much fewer students living in the dorms, the MSU campus looks like a ghost town, save for a few joggers and the occasional passing vehicle.

But the haunted spirits are there if you know where to look. The students that remain in the area, on- or off-campus, are coping as best they can with nagging fears and disrupted lives.

Bruno Ford, a Ph.D candidate studying Medieval literature, came back from spring break with a nasty cough. “I didn’t go far,” Ford said. “I was just visiting my parents.”

“I think I have it” was Ford’s first thought. The CDC reported last week that nearly 40% of COVID-19 victims in the United States are people between ages 20 and 54.

Ford was especially worried because he has asthma and a compromised immune system. On March 11, he got tested for the coronavirus. He waited an agonizing week for the results. It was just bronchitis.

The week of self-isolation rattled him. He said it is difficult to do his daily tasks knowing that “the world is in flames right now.” Since his harrowing experience with self-isolation, Ford doesn’t go outside much anymore. He teaches and does his schoolwork from the comfort of his apartment.

He described his undergrad students as mostly “heavily quarantined.”

So far, students have had mixed results adjusting to their new online classes. One of Ford’s classes abruptly ended. “My professor just decided that we weren’t going to have class anymore,” he explained. Another one of Ford’s professors cut the page length of his final term paper from 25 to 10 pages. “That’s been nice, because I can’t really focus on anything right now,” Ford said.

Georgia Artzberger, a senior with a double major in Comparative Cultures and Politics and Biomedical Laboratory Science, said that some of her professors seemed unable to handle the transition from in-person to digital.

“I’m not that worried about graduating, since I was in a good place before all of this happened, but I do feel like my grades will take a noticeable hit,” said Artzberger. She’s also upset knowing that she may never have an official graduation ceremony or say goodbye to her friends.

“I’m physically feeling fine, and none of my family members or friends are sick, but it’s so difficult just having our lives flipped upside down like this,” she said. So far, MSU’s spring commencement has been postponed, but not yet canceled.

Now-infamous pictures of young East Lansing residents lined up outside bars on the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day raised the question of just how cautious students have been since the outbreak ramped up. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who ordered bars closed shortly thereafter, spoke of “incredibly disturbing” photos of young people gathering at bars, ignoring social distancing recommendations.

Fraternities and sororities swiftly responded to the outbreak and will no longer hold any large gatherings, according to Guillermo Fiores, assistant director for fraternity and sorority life. “On St. Patrick’s Day, I received no reports of parties,” Fiores said. “People know how serious this is getting.”

Most chapters are slowing operations and most members are retreating to their permanent residences, according to Flores. A handful of sororities have shut down already and more are planning to shut down in the coming days.

March 11, the same day that MSU canceled in-person classes, Kate Vernier, president of the panhellenic council, and Daniel Wolfe, president of the interfraternity council, released a joint statement suspending all large social events and Greekwide events, including Greek Week. Wolfe and Vernier also recommended that chapters cancel all large gatherings for the rest of the semester.

Vernier said that half of MSU’s sororities had closed as of last Friday. A reporting system allows members to report any unsafe activities, such as large parties.

Wolfe emphasized that he and his brothers understand the risk that young people pose to the greater community. He said that there has been a dramatic effort among his brothers to “remain safe and take care of themselves during this time.”

If any chapter is having difficulty providing meals to its in-house brothers, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and MSU will try to provide support to those in need, Wolfe said.

After talking to several chapter heads, Vernier was satisfied that the sororities have not started stockpiling. They are continuing to “operate as normal in regards to the food and supplies within their chapter facilities,” she said.

Nikebia Brown-Joseph, a 22-year-old studying Social Work at MSU, has seen food and supply stockpiling firsthand. She understands that her work at a local grocery store is essential but hopes to be able to visit her family soon. The possibility that she could be an asymptomatic carrier gives her pause. She plans to wait in East Lansing until she feels like it is safe to return to her permanent residence in Detroit to be with her parents.

“I was actually planning to go home to help take care of my niece and nephews and now I’m delaying it a bit. I’m just worried about being a carrier,” she said.

She was disappointed that she couldn’t see any of her loved ones on Monday, her birthday, but she doesn’t feel completely isolated. “My roommate and I are close friends, so I’m not going through any of this alone,” she said. “I’ve also been talking to friends and family pretty often by text, social media, and video chats.”

Talking to students and colleagues kept Ford sane while he was in self isolation, waiting for his test results. He particularly likes responding to students’ emails. He said, “It’s good to try to act like everything is normal, even though it’s obviously not.”

Despite his coronavirus scare, Ford has found reason for hope in the responses to the outbreak he has seen. He appreciates the recent rise in donations to charities that help those most vulnerable to the virus. He also enjoys seeing high culture open itself up to people who couldn’t otherwise access it.

“The opera’s streaming so people can watch at home,” he said. “MSU is doing similar stuff with movies. JSTOR (a digital library of academic journals, books and primary sources at jstor.org) just opened up its archives to the public.” Barriers to access are going down all over, even for people who don’t have Hulu and Netflix.

He sees it as a bittersweet victory, though. “We should have been doing this all along,” he said.

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