Ames Creative Community Adjusts to Life Under Coronavirus Pandemic

After testing positive for COVID-19, a founder of the city's Reliable Street artist collective emphasizes the importance of taking the virus seriously and commends how the community has rallied around local businesses closed by a state order

Since a state proclamation last month closing bars and restaurants in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the streets of downtown Ames have been largely empty. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

When Elliot Thompson returned to Ames on Monday, March 9, after a short trip out of state, first to Missouri on Friday and then Chicago for the weekend, the severity of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States was not yet apparent to most Americans outside of New York City, where it was just beginning to approach a crisis point.

In Illinois, the first confirmed case of coronavirus disease 2019 — COVID-19 for short — was announced on January 24. A woman in her 60s tested positive for the virus a week and a half after traveling back to Chicago from its site of origin in Wuhan, China, where she’d been caring for her sick father. At the time, however, the city’s public health commissioner, Allison Arwady, said residents had no reason to adjust their behavior. “This is a single travel-associated case, not a local emergency,” she said, adding that the threat of the virus to the public was “low at this time both nationally and in Chicago.”

During Thompson’s visit in early March, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced that a Chicago man in his 60s had just been diagnosed with the coronavirus, bringing the state’s total number of confirmed cases to seven. The perceived risk of the virus remained low. “There were still tons of people out and about,” Thompson recalled, “and it wasn’t until, like, a week after I got back that shit started to hit the fan.”

The night he returned to Ames, Thompson attended a show at a Main Street bar, where a local band drew a crowd of several dozen people. As life in Ames proceeded as usual, he went to work meetings over the next two days, until the afternoon of Wednesday, March 11, when he fell ill. “It was a very, very strong rush of a fever, and aches and chills,” he said. “It pretty much just floored me. It was even hard to walk and stuff.”

For Thompson, who is 37 years old and said he doesn’t get sick often, the intensity of his symptoms, along with news he’d been reading since his recent trip about the early spread of COVID-19 in Chicago, was cause for concern. He said he stopped going out. “I think I have coronavirus,” he texted a friend. He called First Nurse, a 24-hour confidential hotline provided by Mary Greeley Medical Center, a regional hospital located near downtown Ames, to describe his symptoms. At a doctor’s appointment the following day, he was tested for the flu and strep throat. The tests came back negative.

On Sunday, March 15, Thompson’s fever broke. Later that day, his doctor called, recommending that he get tested for the coronavirus. He was given a nasal swab test in the parking lot of a local McFarland Clinic on Monday morning. That night, a 61-year-old retired nurse from Chicago became the first person in Illinois to die from the virus. On Tuesday, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, issued an emergency proclamation prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people and closing bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters, casinos, and senior citizen centers to the public. Three days later, on Friday, March 20, Thompson’s test came back positive, making his the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Story County.

Elliot Thompson is an influential contributor to the culture of Ames. He owns the Alluvial Brewing Company in Franklin Township on the north end of town, a popular gathering spot that hosts live music and trivia nights, among other activities. With Lyndsay Nissen, he co-owns the former Doughboy Industries feed mill building on Reliable Street, which the two transformed into an artist collective space named after the street and organized under The Love Club LLC. He’s also a disc jockey who performs under the name DJ Elliot James.

“We got confirmation today that one of our Reliable Street family members here in Ames has Coronavirus,” a post from the artist collective’s Instagram account, written by Nissen on the evening of Thompson’s diagnosis, read in part. “Don’t panic, just stay home if you can. Keep our elders safe. Slow the spread. Assume it’s everywhere because there aren’t enough tests. We love you all. We’ve been in quarantine for a week now and we’re doing our best to bring you some safe social interaction.”

One way that Reliable Street has maintained a sense of community through the coronavirus pandemic is by setting up a drive-in theater outside the collective space. Attendees are told to stay in their vehicles, for the sake of social distancing, as they watch a film projected on a nearby building operated by Reliable Street. (The collective’s Instagram post began by saying, “Test 3. Most definitely positive.” But this was in reference to a film projection test, not multiple COVID-19 test results.) Members of the community have continued to produce art and music.

Beyond Reliable Street itself, the Ames artistic community has found other ways to stay connected. London Underground, another popular Main Street bar frequented by members of the collective, began streaming virtual concerts by musicians who would normally perform inside the bar. Mama Tits, who hosts the venue’s monthly Bartop Burlesque event, took that online, as well.

On the day that Thompson was notified of his positive test, Alluvial Brewing Company suspended to-go beer orders, which the brewery had been offering since the 17th because the sales were exempted from the governor’s proclamation. Although Thompson said he doesn’t work in the taproom and was not around most of the staff, either, the suspension was extended the next day to allow time for the brewery to be cleaned. To-go orders have since resumed and sales have been good, he said, and his lingering symptoms cleared up about two weeks ago.

Thompson has sought out grants in hope of offsetting more of the financial losses from Alluvial’s indefinite closure. Last month, the state’s Economic Development Authority accepted applications for relief grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, with sales and withholding tax deferrals, for small businesses affected by the pandemic. The governor also issued a declaration for disaster assistance loans through the federal Small Business Administration. Federal aid, in the form of grants and loans from the CARES Act stimulus bill, is also being offered through the SBA.

In addition to exploring grant opportunities, Thompson said he’d worked out arrangements with the banks Alluvial uses to make interest-only payments during the shutdown, and with utility companies to delay payments without late fees. The situation, he said, made him realize how many different businesses his own interacted with in order to be successful. “I’ve just been surprised how much everyone’s been trying to help each other,” he said.

Alluvial has been open since early 2015, but another local business with ties to Reliable Street, co-owned by Sharon and Austin Stewart, had only been open since October 1 before the pandemic’s spread to Iowa prompted the bar and restaurant shutdown. Named after the Lockwood Grain and Coal Company, which opened at the 150-year-old building in 1898, long before Doughboy (later rebranded as Doboy) moved in six and a half decades later, the Stewarts’ Lockwood Cafe opened after an extensive renovation of Reliable Street’s ground floor. The cafe hosted a grand opening last Halloween featuring music performed by two DJs, including Thompson.

After learning that Thompson was feeling ill and observing that several of their customers were in demographic groups at higher risk for having severe symptoms if they were to contract the coronavirus, as were two of their family members with whom they’d been in contact, the Stewarts decided to close Lockwood until further notice. The cafe’s last day open was Saturday, March 14. Under its normal five-day schedule, the cafe would have reopened on Tuesday, the day the governor issued her proclamation closing restaurants.

As with bars, the proclamation exempted carry-out and delivery orders, which the Stewarts initially planned to offer from their breakfast and brunch menu. But they abandoned that plan when they began experiencing symptoms themselves, and have not yet decided when they may reopen. They have also been looking for small business loans, and some of their employees have been approved for unemployment checks. On the day Lockwood closed, Sharon Stewart said that she left early when she began to experience a mild fever and runny nose.

A takeoff on the saying, “Let them eat cake,” which is commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette, a portrait of her here manipulated to look like Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Image: Austin Stewart

“When Elliot finally got his results back that he was positive, at that point I was fairly certain that the representation of how many people in Story County that had COVID-19 was severely underestimated, because there was no testing,” Stewart said. Because they had recently been around Thompson, the Stewarts eventually tried to get tested themselves but were turned down because their symptoms were mild. Instead, Stewart said, a nurse told them to assume that they were positive for the virus, advised them to self-quarantine for seven days, and not resume work at Lockwood until they went at least 72 hours without a fever.

“Both of these places are gathering places,” Thompson said, referring to the Alluvial Brewing Company and Lockwood Cafe. “They work because people are customers of them, and it’s a very social thing. I think you kind of take it for granted, sometimes — that’s the place I drink beer at, or that’s the place I get a coffee at. But once those places aren’t there anymore, you realize how much of a community hub these things are for people.”

When the Stewarts made the call to close Lockwood, Iowa State University had just recessed for spring break. On Wednesday, March 11, the university announced that all classes would temporarily be moved online beginning Monday, March 23, when the break was over. Students were encouraged to remain home for two weeks upon their return to Ames. Halfway through spring break, ISU decided to keep classes exclusively virtual through the rest of the semester.

This impacted Austin Stewart, who is an associate professor at ISU’s College of Design (and has some past experience with infectious diseases; a recent profile published by ISU’s News Service began by asking, “How many people can say they got mono from a monk?”). Stewart played an early role at Reliable Street, helping to renovate the building, and the design college now incorporates projects at the collective space into its coursework.

Cameron Gray, a graduate student in the design college, has been forced to adjust preparation for his thesis work this semester to present it virtually. He was also working with Stewart on a sculpture project at Reliable Street funded by ISU’s Focus grant program for artists that he said is now on hold. The isolation since the pandemic has been emotionally draining, Gray said, but he expressed optimism about how the situation could ultimately strengthen the community. “I think it will help us realize the power within our own selves to make things,” he said. “We won’t take for granted the communities that we have and the collaboration that we’ve made, too.”

For students studying abroad in Italy, the disruption to the semester began earlier. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Level 3 travel warning for the south-central European nation on February 28, prompting ISU to demand that all students currently there make arrangements to travel home. By mid-March, the university was encouraging all students studying abroad to return to the US.

Deni Chamberlin, an associate professor at ISU’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication (and former instructor of mine), was teaching photojournalism this semester in Urbino, a city in central Italy. The 11 students in their class were instructed to self-quarantine for two weeks after arriving home and provide regular updates to the Thielen Student Health Center about their well-being. Chamberlin stayed behind to make preparations for the online course they would now be teaching for the remainder of the semester, departing shortly before the province they were in was locked down along with more than a quarter of the entire country on March 8 in an effort to control a coronavirus outbreak that was on its way to becoming one of deadliest in the world.

When they flew out of Bologna, Italy, to Heathrow Airport in London and then back to the US, Chamberlin said there was no screening anywhere along the way, despite a notice they’d received from the State Department claiming that travelers returning to the country would be screened and have their temperatures checked. Their students, Chamberlin added, “said that they were surprised that nobody said anything or asked where they’d been or anything like that” as they were coming home. The students in Chamberlin’s class went back to their hometowns, but Chamberlin heard stories of students who’d been studying elsewhere in Italy and, after returning to Ames, partied at Campustown bars in the weeks leading to the shutdown.

Iowa has not experienced the sort of health care crisis from COVID-19 that has overwhelmed hospitals in areas with more densely populated cities. However, the pandemic here is not expected to hit its peak until late this month, according to a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a Seattle-based research organization founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Mary Greeley Medical Center, a 13-county regional hospital, was treating two COVID-19 patients, neither of whom were in the 14-bed intensive care unit. A third patient was recently discharged, according to hospital spokesperson Steve Sullivan. Only one of the patients was from Story County. The hospital is licensed for 220 beds altogether and currently has 185 inpatient beds, Sullivan said. It also has upwards of 20 ventilators, should they eventually be needed for coronavirus patients with severe respiratory symptoms that have pushed hospitals in other parts of the world past their limits of available, potentially life-saving equipment. The hospital, Sullivan added, has begun screening patients for domestic and international travel.

From March 1 to the afternoon of April 8, Mary Greeley had conducted 151 COVID-19 tests, five of which have returned positive results from the University of Iowa-based State Hygienic Laboratory in Iowa City. At least one of those tests was for a resident who lives outside Story County. McFarland Clinic, where Elliot Thompson went, also continues to conduct tests, but did not respond to a request for additional statistics. Testing has largely been limited to those who are hospitalized with fevers and respiratory problems after other diagnoses are ruled out, older adults with similar symptoms or chronic health conditions, and health care workers displaying symptoms.

Altogether, according to state records that are updated daily, six residents of Story County have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Wednesday. Amy McCoy, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said last week that county-level statistics were not available for the total number of tests conducted, “but it is a tool we hope to have sometime” this week. The state does not have city-level statistics readily available either, but at least three of the Story County residents who have tested positive are from Ames. None of the 27 fatalities across the state reported by the IDPH have included residents of the county.

At her daily press conference Wednesday, Governor Reynolds said the State Hygienic Laboratory currently had the capacity to conduct 1,329 tests. At the time, she added, the state had records of nearly 14,000 test results, 1,145 of them positive across 79 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Still, even as some private and independent labs have started analyzing tests outside of the state lab, they are still difficult to come by.

That’s frustrated Sharon Stewart, Lockwood Cafe’s co-owner, who last week said she had been in self-quarantine for over two weeks out of an abundance of caution. “I’m concerned when I go back to making food for people that I don’t have it,” she said, referring to COVID-19. “If there was a way to get tested and know that, then I would be so much more comfortable as a business saying, yes, our doors are open, we’re following all these procedures, also we have a test showing we are negative and do not have it. But without that, it’s hard to know what the right decision to do is, for the community and our team.”

Stewart sees this as the failure not of local hospitals or the state but the federal government. Lofty promises from the Trump administration about the availability and speed of testing have not been kept because of bureaucratic obstacles and leadership shortcomings. However, she also supports a statewide stay-at-home order that might encourage more people to take the threat of spreading the virus seriously. Iowa is one of only eight states without any such statewide or local orders. Governor Kim Reynolds has used a regional scoring matrix that has been criticized as opaque and arbitrary to defend her decision not to issue an order, saying it would be “irresponsible” given Iowa’s differences compared to a state like New York. On Monday, she did expand the state’s list of mandated closures to include malls, playgrounds, and a handful of other gathering spots.

Thompson, too, said he could see himself supporting a stay-at-home order. He added that clearer mandates from the state, with additional financial assistance, might help restaurants better navigate the shutdown as their owners attempt to keep afloat. “When you start putting it up on the individual to make the call, some people who own a business might still think it’s a hoax, who knows, so they might just not pay any attention to it,” he said. “Some people, they might feel like if they close, their business is going to fail. So if you have one restaurant right next to another one, and one of them’s closed and one of them’s open, some people might think that one looks irresponsible.”

When he got his positive test result back, Thompson was told to make a list of people he’d recently been around. He began contacting people to let them know. Most of them, he said, had no symptoms. One other person he’d been around also got tested. After a weeklong delay, his test result came back negative. This surprised Thompson, because the person had strikingly similar symptoms to his own, down to “these weird earaches he was having.”

Both of these situations highlight the limitations of coronavirus testing. It’s possible that patrons or employees of any bar or restaurant in town could have unknowingly been carrying — and spreading — the virus before the state shutdown last month. According to a recent estimate from the director of the CDC, a quarter of those who contract it may show no symptoms. And the rate of tests that result in false negatives may be similar, evidence suggests.

“I think people just have to assume that they have it, and just really take this thing seriously,” Thompson said. “Which I think people are starting to do now, but I still see big groups out and about doing stuff.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.