Insight: Remembering the last days of pre-pandemic normalcy

Whether it be crowded concerts or teeming First Fridays, students reflect on the days leading up to the COVID-19 shutdown in March

On March 11, students received an email from President Michael Crow announcing all classes would move online following spring break, making the pandemic feel real and slamming the door on the old world. 

For some students, the email was the beginning of a realization that everything was about to change. It put their last activities in a completely different light. 

In my case, I struggled to realize then I had attended my last First Friday for a long time. 

I had spent the last two years working at the Phoenix Art Museum, where a lot of people begin or spend their First Fridays to enjoy the free admission and the varied performances held in the galleries. That Friday there was a popular drag race featuring local drag queens and kings

For typical events, the museum may see a few thousand people passing through over the course of the night, but they rarely crowd in any particular gallery. That night, everyone was in the great hall to watch the drag show.

Standing near the edge of the hall and talking with one of my coworkers, I had COVID-19 in the back of my mind, but I hadn’t connected it to the massive crowd I was a part of. I had been following the updates on the virus, but it seemed hard to believe it could ever transform that joyful image into something now unimaginable.

Mark Raban, a junior studying industrial engineering, had a similar experience after going on a boating trip to Bartlett Lake with a friend from high school and their friends from Loyola Marymount University. 

“It was during spring break before we knew we were not coming back. But when we got back, the LMU kids all got their school’s email that they weren’t coming back,” Raban said. "That sparked in my mind wondering if that was gonna happen to us too.”

He didn’t have to wait long. Their trip was on March 10, just under 24 hours before he would receive ASU's notification. 

Raban said the outing was the last time he wasn’t thinking about COVID-19 precautions in every moment outside. 

“It was right at that point where people were starting to realize that it was like an actual thing we needed to worry about,” he said. 

Looking back, if the trip were a few weeks later it likely wouldn’t have even happened. He said he didn’t think his friends from out of state would have traveled this far, out of concerns of bringing the virus back home to their families.

It wasn't until July when he and his then girlfriend went to Saguaro Lake to go kayaking, and — while they took precautions on the trip — he said he almost forgot there was a pandemic based on the crowds there.

“It was almost like the opposite of what it should have been … maybe people were just getting fed up with the COVID stuff and losing a little bit of their will to care,” he said. 

At that point in the summer, Arizona was facing record-breaking highs of new COVID-19 cases and deaths.

For Camille Avila, a junior studying anthropology, her spring break was filled with memories she fears may not happen again for years.

On March 7, the first weekend of spring break, she attended the M3F music festival at Margaret T. Hance Park in downtown Phoenix, an event that attracted about 25,000 people over three days.

Avila said she held COVID-19 in the back of her head as it was still a far away issue. 

"As it got closer, COVID got bigger and bigger, and I got a little worried just because I knew we were gonna be in a big crowd. But back then there was two cases in Arizona,” she said. “So I felt it wasn’t that big of a deal in our heads, it’s affecting other people but it’s not here right now.”

The festival itself provided hand-sanitizing stations for all attendees, but back then there were no occupancy limits, social distancing requirements, mask mandate or any other health safety guidelines.

“It just felt like normal, so I just treated it like it was normal with some extra precautions. I washed my hands and took basic multivitamins and allergy medicine when I got back home,” Avila said.

Following the festival, she traveled with her grandparents and parents to California where she took extra precautions to protect her family: no hugs, no shared food, no eating out and no close proximity. 

Her and her parents traveled to California to visit Knott’s Berry Farm and other museums in the area, realizing after the fact they were some of the last people to visit. 

The day at the music festival was her last day living in the downtown Phoenix dorms with her friends, another realization she said came too late.

“I was really sad that the year was coming to an end, but I had in my mind that I still had a month and a half with them, and that just got ripped away,” she said. 

If invited, Avila said there would need to be major adjustments in order for her to go back to a music festival in this moment, such as provided socially distanced boxes for small groups to sit in like the Virgin Money Unity Arena’s experimental concert in the United Kingdom.

But if this reimagined concert is not feasible, she said she’ll wait — even if it takes "a few years to be able to go back and do what I did in March."

If I had known that would be the last First Friday, I would have spent the entire night out there — checking out each booth, trying a little bit from every food truck and listening to each artist play.

Until COVID-19 is a distant memory, the museum and Roosevelt Street are filled with shadows of the world we used to live in, one we may never get back.

Reach the reporter at and follow @RyanKnappenber3 on Twitter.

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