COVID Graphic

Over the past year — and since the pandemic’s beginning — Penn State has experienced various coronavirus cases surges within the State College region and on its University Park campus.

At the end of March, The New York Times labeled State College as one of the highest metropolitan areas in the country for coronavirus cases. The announcement came after President Eric Barron reported Penn State’s first case of coronavirus variant B.1.1.7.

With increased coronavirus cases in the State College area, student Hannah Nelson said she feels bad for the community members who experience the aftermaths of “student recklessness.”

Nelson (senior-history and digital and print journalism) said most community members lack the opportunity to leave the area when coronavirus cases increase exponentially — unlike the students — so they are being “put in jeopardy.”

Megan Hartmann, who resides in off-campus housing and is “cautious about coronavirus measures,” said the recent upsurge in coronavirus cases in State College came as a “shock,” and the current number of cases is “ridiculous.”

Hartmann said she especially follows Penn State and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines, because she tries to accommodate her roommates' comfort levels and limit unnecessary risks.

“Basically, everything I do negatively or positively affects the people who I live with, so it’s difficult to sometimes navigate the world in a way that everyone in the household feels safe — beyond just myself,” Hartmann (junior-psychology) said. 

According to Hartmann, the coronavirus has negatively impacted her mental health and has led to increased disputes in her household. 

“[My roommates and I have] been trying to limit our exposure to people, and if we do see people, it’s only people in our little bubble,” Hartmann said. “The situation has affected us all mentally because it’s tough to be stuck indoors and only be able to see the same few people, which also opens the door to a lot more bickering and a lot more fights.”

Andrew Kacala said he has experienced challenges on campus related to the marketing of his business. In high school, Kacala (freshman-biology) founded a clothing business called VeryGoodShirts, and he’s taken the remote business with him to college.

Due to social distancing and limited in-person activities, Kacala said he’s experienced some challenges in spreading his products to the Penn State community.

“I think one of the things that was initially challenging was that it’s really hard to get the in-person connection for the business. The connections you make with people are important for a business,” Kacala said. “A business will spread through those personal connections you make with friends in public venues and events.”

Despite being in the pandemic, Kacala said he feels “lucky” because he’s still able to grow the business and expand it into the State College area.

“[I’ll] randomly see someone wearing one of my sweatshirts or a shirt downtown every once in a while — almost like a fly on the wall — which is always exciting to see from afar,” Kacala said. 

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Olivia Evans — who’s currently quarantining at home after close contact with someone who has the coronavirus — said she’s been personally affected by the recent surge of coronavirus cases in State College. 

“I don’t think this experience has been a positive thing for my mental health,” Evans (senior–science) said, “but I’m really trying my best to just keep focused on my classes and doing what I can to stay safe and still get that sense of social belonging without putting myself at a huge risk.”

Evans said the recent uptick in coronavirus cases has added extra stress to her plate. 

“I’m a very diligent student, and I worry a lot about my grades, so the surging coronavirus cases are just another stress on top of the normal stresses of classes in college,” Evans said. 

Despite increased anxiety from rising coronavirus numbers, many students, including Kacala, have experienced relief and lessened anxiety due to increased vaccine rollouts.

“Although it’s not great to see the influx in COVID cases, my spirits have actually been higher due to the vaccines and all the progress in that area,” Kacala said.

Since Kacala’s family recently received the vaccine, Kacala said he’s experienced less anxiety because he doesn’t have to worry as much about bringing the virus home and infecting them.

“I’ve come to terms with the risks of going to the dining hall or just sharing certain things in the dorms with other people,” Kacala said. “While the spikes [in coronavirus cases] were worrisome in the beginning, I’ve come to terms with the fact that by being here, it’s a risk in and of itself.” 

Nelson, who’s partially vaccinated, also said the vaccine rollout has calmed some of her worries as the case numbers continue rising. However, according to Nelson, the positive vaccine progress has also given people a false sense of security. 

“With vaccination rollout happening, people now are feeling relieved and like we’re out of the woods when it’s still being spread,” Nelson said. “People are just feeling gutsier now that there are vaccines.”

Nelson said she thinks “lessened restrictions by the state” are making people less cautious in following coronavirus procedures.

As of April 4, many restrictions on restaurant bar services — including the curfew for serving alcoholic beverages — were lifted. While requirements for mask wearing, social distancing and limited indoor capacity remained, restaurants were permitted to resume bar services. 

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“I want to think positively and think that the [changed bar restrictions] are one more step toward normalcy, but they do open up for more risk of cases,” Evans said. “I don’t think the hours will be a big deal or make a big difference necessarily, because if kids want to go out, they’re going to go out.” 

When out in downtown State College, Nelson said it’s “very weird” to see places — especially restaurants and bars — starting to look like they did pre-pandemic as regulations and restrictions ease up.

“It’s surprising to me to see how filled restaurants and bars are because we are still in the middle of the pandemic,” Nelson said, “but I’ve been to places and it’s looked like something you’d see on a regular night before the pandemic ever started.”

To feel more safe, one precautionary measure many students are taking advantage of on campus is coronavirus rapid testing, according to Evans.

Evans said she knows many people who have “taken advantage of Penn State’s walk-up testing” before hanging out with other people, which she said is “a positive step in the right direction.” 

Over the course of the spring semester, Rebekah Lundy said she’s been rapid tested “once every two weeks,” and when her or her roommates feel sick, they try to limit contact with each other and get tested to guarantee everyone’s safety. 

Lundy (sophomore-secondary education) said the process of getting rapid tests has been “hassle free,” and she said being tested has put her mind “more at ease, especially before traveling home.” 

Moreover, some students said they attribute the recent surge to various factors, including “COVID fatigue,” increased partying and less caution due to more vaccinations in the state.

“I think Penn State’s doing all that it can to try to contain everything, but I think recently it’s getting nicer outside, so students are congregating more,” Evans said. “I want to say it’s better for [students] to go outside though, because there is more potential to distance and not be on top of each other as they would be if they were in a small apartment.”

Kacala said he has especially noticed changes around Penn State since the weather started getting warmer. 

“Since the seasons are changing again, the nice weather’s inspired people to get out and want to be outside. They just want to be socializing,” Kacala said. “So, I think it’s becoming more challenging for students to maintain all the guidelines — especially being that it’s now been almost two school years with these restrictions and some people are just getting restless, which is understandable for young people.”

With the warmer weather driving students outside, Kacala — whose entire Penn State academic experience has been during the pandemic — said the campus looks like it did when he attended tours prior to the pandemic.

“Penn State feels almost like a new place with everyone being outside and with the tours going on,” Kacala said. “It’s starting to look like a college, which is the craziest part.”

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After a year of pandemic regulations, some students, including Nelson, said they find it challenging to remember what “normal life” was like a year ago.

Nelson said she finds it easy to forget “wearing masks and face coverings outside in 75-degree weather isn’t normal and that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” because she’s become so used to these conditions.

“I have to keep reminding myself that life wasn’t always like this,” Nelson said.

Some students, including Lundy, said they’ve become used to coronavirus precautionary measures and want to continue using them in daily life post-pandemic.

In the future, Lundy said she hopes to keep some coronavirus regulations in place — like mask wearing for people who are sick in order to avoid the “Penn State plague” that hits students. She also said she hopes to keep online meetings, which are convenient and easily accessible for people with a busy schedule.

Despite rising cases, Lundy said she sees a positive future ahead with vaccine distribution— a future where people can voluntarily use aspects of coronavirus regulations to make life easier.

“I see an end to it now and a light at the end of the tunnel,” Lundy said. “Just seeing people on the [HUB-Robeson Center] lawn and around State College when walking around, it’s bringing back an atmosphere that was missing these past few months, and it’s really great to feel that again.”

Despite the uptick in cases, many students said they were trying to stay hopeful for the future. Kacala said vaccination increases are a sign Penn State is going in the “right direction.”

Evans said normalcy is a much needed step for many people.

“Now — more than ever — people are just wanting to get back to normal life.”

Editor's Note: Hannah Nelson was a reporter for The Daily Collegian in spring 2018.

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