Photos from 1 year ago show how little the US understood about the pandemic to come

college basketball
Jaime Jaquez Jr. of the UCLA Bruins celebrates with the crowd after defeating the Arizona Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California on February 29, 2020.

  • A year ago, public-health officials didn’t fully understand how the coronavirus spreads.
  • Masks weren’t yet recommended.
  • Photos from early March 2020 show people blowing their noses in public, meeting at bars, and attending college basketball games.
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Americans knew little about how their actions were fueling the coronavirus’ spread a year ago: People met friends at bars and concerts, blew their noses in public, and gathered en masse for campaign rallies, Mardi Gras celebrations, and college basketball games.

Research now shows the virus was likely spreading in the US as early as December 2019. But even after the US identified its first coronavirus case in January 2020, life continued somewhat normally through mid-March.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t recommend against gatherings of 50 or more people until March 15. Had the US instituted broad social-distancing measures one week earlier, a study found, roughly 600,000 infections and 32,000 deaths could have been prevented by May 3.

The following photos, taken roughly a year ago, show how little Americans understood about what was ahead.

More than 1 million people gathered in New Orleans for Mardi Gras from February 14 to February 25, 2020.

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Crowds scream for beads thrown from floats on the Endymion parade during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana, on February 22, 2020.

A study found that Mardi Gras “greatly accelerated” the coronavirus outbreak in New Orleans, Louisiana — and likely introduced the virus to other nearby states.

Though the research is still awaiting peer review, the authors wrote that most of the roughly 50,000 COVID-19 cases reported during Louisiana’s first wave can likely be traced back to Mardi Gras.

One day after New York City confirmed its first coronavirus case, officials crammed into a conference room to discuss their emergency-response plan.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio surrounded by administration officials during a coronavirus table-top emergency exercise at the NYC Office of Emergency Management headquarters in Brooklyn, New York on March 2, 2020.

Researchers at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine estimate that New York City’s initial coronavirus outbreak started in mid-February. As late as March 9, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told people not to worry about transmission in crowded areas.

“It’s not people in the stadium, it’s not people in the big open area or a conference,” de Blasio said that day, referring to the way the virus spreads.

Seven days later, de Blasio closed the city’s public schools. Four days after that, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

Ohio ordered bars to close on March 15, one of the first states to do so.

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Bernie Sanders supporters react to early polling results at Democracy Brewing in Boston on March 3, 2020.

That same day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called for a “dramatic” decline in personal interactions in bars and restaurants. 

“Everybody has to take this seriously, even the young,” Fauci told CNN.

A September CDC report found that adults with COVID-19 were twice as likely to have reported dining a restaurant in the two weeks before they got sick than those who tested negative.

President Donald Trump toured the CDC in person on March 6. “It came out of nowhere,” he said of the coronavirus at a a press conference that day. “We’re taking care of it.”

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Trump speaks at a meeting about the coronavirus at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, March 6, 2020.

Trump also falsely claimed on March 6 that anyone who wanted a coronavirus test could get one. But the US was only testing 20 out of every 1 million people at that point.

Thousands of people gathered in Kansas City, Missouri, at a campaign rally for Joe Biden on March 7.

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Biden speaks to a full crowd during the a campaign rally at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 7, 2020.

“We knew that this was coming, back as far as January,” Biden told CNN on March 1.

He began canceling his rallies around March 10, shortly after the CDC advised older Americans to “stay home as much as possible” and avoid crowds.

The CDC didn’t recommend wearing masks in public until April.

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A commuter wipes her nose during rush hour at Grand Central Terminal in New York City on March 12, 2020.

Masks were in short supply in the spring, so US officials were primarily concerned with preserving enough for healthcare workers. That shortage, combined with limited research about whether face coverings were effective in curbing the coronavirus’ spread, led experts not to recommend masks to the general public right away.

Instead, experts emphasized hand-washing and told people not to touch their faces, since preliminary research suggested the virus could spread via surfaces.

More recent studies have found, however, that surface transmission is somewhat rare. The virus spreads mainly when people share the same air — it travels either through respiratory droplets exchanged when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes, or via smaller particles that linger in the air for minutes to hours.

 

Americans returning from abroad flooded US airports after Trump banned most travel from Europe on March 11.

In this photo provided by Austin Boschen, people wait in line to go through the customs at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, Texas, Saturday, March 14, 2020. International travelers reported long lines at the customs at the airport Saturday as staff took extra precautions to guard against the new coronavirus, The Dallas Morning News reports. Boschen said it took him at least 4 hours to go through the customs. (Austin Boschen via AP)
People wait in line to go through the customs at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Texas on March 14, 2020.

Passengers waited in hours-long customs lines in cities like New York, Chicago, and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told The Wall Street Journal that people were standing “cheek to jowl” at O’Hare International Airport. A passenger told the Journal that baggage claim there “looked like Ellis Island.”

Several major sports leagues suspended their seasons during the second week in March.

Wisconsin forward Micah Potter, right, hugs Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard after defeating Indiana 60-56 in an NCAA college basketball game in Bloomington, Ind., Saturday, March 7, 2020. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Wisconsin forward Micah Potter, right, hugs Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard after an NCAA college basketball game in Bloomington, Indiana, on March 7, 2020.

The NBA suspended its season on March 11 after several Utah Jazz players tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL, MLS, and National Lacrosse League followed suit a day later.

Sports stadiums have recently started to reopen at partial capacity. At the end of February, New York City began allowing 10% of seats to be filled in stadiums like Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center. 

Disneyland closed its Anaheim, California, theme parks on March 14.

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Visitors take selfies in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle during the last day before Disneyland closed in Anaheim, California on March 13, 2020.

The parks remain closed, but they could reopen as soon as April 1, according to California’s guidelines. Capacity could range from 15% to 35%, depending on local transmission rates.

The New York Stock Exchange didn’t go virtual until March 23, after two of its employees tested positive for COVID-19.

FILE PHOTO: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the closing bell in New York, U.S., March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the closing bell on March 13, 2020.

By then, New York’s stay-at-home order had been in place for three days. The physical trading floor had never shut down independently before, even during World War II or 9/11.

At a March 15 press briefing held indoors without masks, Trump said the US had “tremendous control” of the virus.

President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Trump speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on March 15, 2020.

At the same briefing, though, Fauci warned that “the worst is yet ahead.”

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