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Documenting COVID One Year In: NY Historian Continuing Pandemic Timeline

A COVID-19 vaccination site at the University at Albany
Jesse King
A COVID-19 vaccination site at the University at Albany

It was on March 1, 2020 that New York state confirmed the first case of a novel coronavirus that would eventually change everyday life across the United States and the world. So how will history treat this COVID-19 era? Since early 2020, Madison County Historian Matt Urtz has been compiling a timeline of key events and personal stories in hopes of chipping away at that monumental task. Urtz spoke with WAMC's Jim Levulis about the effort.

Urtz: We closed on March 20, my last day was March 20 which was a Friday. And I think when that happened, it got very real for everybody. I always point to March 11, was the night that I think Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive and the NBA shut down. And shortly thereafter, a lot of sports shut down very quickly. It was right around those two points in time that I thought, okay, if a local government office is closing, and they all were in upstate New York, there's something we have to do about this. Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, right around then, also made the announcements of the half capacities and the business closings. So it was then we kind of went back and went, okay, we're going to create a timeline of when the first news of this kind of came about. And when we closed on the 20th, we assumed it was going to be a two-week closure, most of the schools closed for kind of two weeks, and maybe included their break. And we decided that we felt like it was important for us to track this because even if it's only two weeks, you know, this is a unique moment in time. It's been a lot longer than two weeks though.

Levulis: Absolutely. I mean, we're talking about a year more into this. And with that timespan, there's been so much information regarding case numbers, unfortunately death numbers, and then quarantine measures and vaccines being approved, how have you decided what to include in this timeline?

Urtz: So from the very beginning, local historians are very local centric. So I am the historian for Madison County. I knew right from the beginning, my goal was to focus on the move news that was Madison County centric. So while we include the world numbers, the US numbers and the state numbers in our weekly update, the daily updates that we included would include stuff that impacted local. So we included news about the schools, we included news about businesses. We also in that point in time launched our program interviewing local community organizations and businesses to kind of track what they were experiencing in time. So we've tried to keep it very local centric, so that we have a broad archive of information that's strictly to Madison County, because you can find a lot of the statewide and nationwide numbers pretty easily. But we want to make sure we have something on a local level.

Levulis: And to that point about you conducting interviews with business owners, religious leaders, and others in and around Madison County to learn about their experiences during the pandemic. In those talks, did you get a sense that those individuals themselves recognize that this is a period of time that will be of historical significance?

Urtz: Yeah, absolutely. Most people realized, from the early interviews we did, talking to folks that were directly impacted. We had a minister who was with one of the first people that passed from COVID in our county, and he went in great detail about what the experience was like and the idea of helping people cope when you couldn't touch or hug or do traditional ways. A lot of the businesses talked about the fear of laying people off and not being able to respond. And the idea that everything changed so rapidly day to day, there was new rules and guidelines that people had to follow and trying to be able to operate a business while making sure you're making it as safe as possible. And even we talked to school and community leaders and the same thing kind of went through, it was such a rapid change. We've actually started now reconnecting with some of the ones we did very early on to talk about how they're doing, you know nine months to a year later. And we'll do that hopefully with everybody. Because it's been such a process. And some businesses really struggled and some businesses thrived in this climate.

Levulis: I think for a lot of students of history, sometimes barebones, it boils down to dates, numbers, famous individuals and famous events. But are you really trying to grasp what sort of everyday life has been like in Madison County during the pandemic?

Urtz: Yeah. Early on we talked to some school teachers who had students do a project, talking about what it was like during the early part of the quarantine. So we have some middle school classes, and we have those documented and archived for future generations. They're really neat, kind of getting a child's perspective. We also promoted people keeping a journal during this time. So that we have those individual experiences. And then, you know, people themselves, social media has been an interesting thing and trying to log how…because people express their emotions through that in many cases, it's like a daily journal. But yeah, dates are important in the sense of understanding when things closed in the timeline. But our goal is to get as much information as possible on how people were impacted directly throughout the pandemic. So, you know, we talked to organizations that help people in the time of need, and we learned things like homelessness actually went up in Madison County during that time. And obviously, jobless claims went up during that time. And we tried to talk to organizations that helped people like that, and how they could respond because they were all impacted. Again, the idea of direct contact, which is something most people are familiar with, wasn't allowed. So how do you help people in a time of need when you can't have direct contact with them? So it's been an interesting experience listening to folks talk about how they were able to adapt on the fly. And that’s a very big theme. And all this is that everybody, whether you were a business, a community organization, or even our local governments, were all adapting on the fly, trying to make the best decisions in the moment.

Levulis: You add the daily updates to the timeline and do the interviews, do you find yourself ever going back to the beginning of the timeline at all?

Urtz: I actually find myself going back a lot. So a good example would be in the last few weeks, close-contact sports, like basketball for high schools have been approved, wrestling, I believe. And I find myself going back to find out when did that stop? What were the rules then? What are the rules now? How have they changed? When the restaurants reopened recently, we looked back on the original guidelines. And again, we've done some interviews with restaurateurs about those experiences. We look back on those guidelines and see how they've changed to now. And we also look back on it kind of a fun aspect. When you talked to somebody in March in April, their answers were different than the people we talked to in August and September, because in March and April takeout was new for a lot of restaurants and in that experience, or, you know, we had some manufacturers that really condensed their lines. And now they're kind of back up to a more full line when you talk to them now. So it's an interesting thing to look back on the timeline and all of this and go, it's changed so much in a year. I mean, like you said, we're coming up on the year of everything kind of starting. And it's insane what we've gone through to think about where we are today.

Levulis: What's the long-term goal of the timeline?

Urtz: So in 1918, we had the Spanish pandemic, and one of the things we have is newspapers that covered the pandemic and told some personal stories, we don't get that as much because we don't have nearly as many newspapers. But we don't have a lot of personal journal accounts, firsthand accounts of what it was like. My goal is to have a really large collection of interviews, of the timeline, of the school stuff that we collected, so that people can look on a local level at Madison County and see how people responded because, you know, we look in time and we think about yearrs, a lot of people point to 1968 as being a very big year, 1918. I think, you know, 10-15 years down the road, we're going look back at 2020 as this unique moment in American history, because we had a presidential election, because we had the pandemic going on ,because of the African American movement and the George Floyd protests, all these things going on create a unique moment in history.

Levulis: Have you figured out what the final addition to the timeline would be?

Urtz: No, I suppose when it's announced to work back to normal. But I think again, talking to folks in the interview process, I think back to normal is forever changed. So my thought process would be when all of the restrictions that are currently in place go away, would be the final one. We're very fortunate in Madison County and across New York State, our numbers have gone down significantly. In Madison County, we're only averaging, you know, 10 to 12 new cases a day, which is wonderful. And we're very grateful for our health care workers and all these people working so hard and our residents doing their best to avoid direct contact and wearing the masks and following social distancing guidelines. But you know, it's not something I think about because I don't think it's going to be something that comes to an end in the near term. But maybe by, you know, fall, we kind of try and wrap it up. I don't know, it's a good question. I guess I don't have a true answer.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org