On Sunday afternoon, Leamington Foods, 5467 W. Madison St. in Austin, was bustling with shoppers stocking up on everything from bottled water to toilet paper in preparation for long stays at home to avoid spreading or catching coronavirus, or COVID-19. 

“It’s a panic,” said Gus Cassacio, the store’s manager. “People are scared. Everybody is concerned. I’ve never seen anything like this in my 55 years in the business. I’ve been here since we opened this store in 1994.” 

“People are adjusting to it,” said former 29th Ward alderman Isaac “Ike” Carothers. “As long as Austin’s existed, people here have overcome challenges. For the first few days, it was hard to get paper towels and tissue. Now, they’re getting that. We’re getting used to not socializing. People are still reaching out to shake hands.” 

Government authorities and public health officials have endorsed social distancing in order to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19. The virus, which was traced to Wuhan, China in December, leads to respiratory infection and is 10 times more lethal than the flu, according to health experts.   As of March 15, there were 93 cases of the virus reported in Illinois.

The virus has prompted President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to close schools, restaurants and bars for the next few weeks. Last week, the governor also instituted a month-long ban of large crowds with more than 1,000 people and encouraged that events of at least 250 people be canceled. 

“We sanitize the touch screens and printers after each voter,” said Otha Montgomery, an election judge. “We’re trying to halt the spread of this virus.” 

The West Chicago Avenue Branch Public Library, 4856 W. Chicago Ave., had closed its doors to patrons on Sunday, but maintained a front room as an early voting center. 

“The Board of Elections sent us cleaning supplies and we practice frequent cleaning,” said Qiana Lenoir, a poll judge, as she waved a plastic-gloved hand. “Everyone’s using the sanitizer and voters bring their own gloves and masks.” 

“Got to be careful, got to be prayerful,” said a woman who only went by Pat. She had ventured out on Sunday to campaign for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx during a phone banking event at Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s North Avenue office. “We’re just taking precautions.” 

Institutional adjustments 

Students across the West Side are adjusting to online learning after statewide school closures that are expected to last at least until March 31. 

On March 15, Chicago Public Schools officials announced that they will provide meals to all students in need. 

“All CPS families will be able to pick up meals outside of their nearest CPS school beginning March 17, between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Monday-Friday throughout the closure,” CPS officials said. 

The Greater Chicago Food Depository and Chicago and other food providers will support families affected by the closures at a list of locations available at: www.chicagosfoodbank.org/find-food/. 

City-run senior centers, including the Austin Satellite Senior Center, 5071 W. Congress Pkwy., and the West Central Regional Center, 2102 W. Ogden Ave., indefinitely suspended all group classes and activities. Seniors will still be able to apply for benefits and use the food pantry, but participants in meal programs will have to take their meals home. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected West Side nonprofits. Austin’s BUILD Foundation announced on social media that it is shutting down its operations, including all of its regular programs, between March 16 and March 29. 

The North Lawndale Employment Network has shifted its job training programs to phone conferencing, offering phone card subsidies worth up to $50 and two weeks’ worth of Ventra cards for participants.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago at Homan Square has closed its photo exhibition early, but as of March 14, it hadn’t made any moves to cancel workshops. 

Bonni McKeown, Igor Studenkov and Michael Romain contributed to this story. 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com