NU Declassified: Canceling Amid COVID-19

Kalen Luciano, Digital Managing Editor

When Northwestern offered little guidance for the path ahead, student groups like Tufaan Entertainment were left to decide whether to cancel their events or risk everyone’s health in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois. NU Declassified takes an inside look at what this decision process looked like for the co-directors of Tufaan Entertainment.

KALEN LUCIANO: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano, and this is NU Declassified, a look into campus life at Northwestern. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, spring break was extended to the beginning of April and classes moved online. Not only did most students leave, but Northwestern ordered all non-essential students, faculty and staff to stay off campus. Shortly after, Illinois and dozens of other states issued stay-at-home orders…

JB PRITZKER: All our residents will be subject to a stay-at-home order.

KALEN LUCIANO: But before these events unfolded and the seriousness of the pandemic sunk in, students like Reema Amin had to make difficult decisions in the midst of uncertainty.

REEMA AMIN: Our big thing was like, “OK, if the University doesn’t make us cancel, maybe we shouldn’t, maybe it’s fine to have this event,” but the more we talked about it, the more we realized it’s our responsibility to make a decision.

KALEN LUCIANO: Northwestern announced a ban on group gatherings of 50 or more people on Friday, March 13, two days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued similar guidelines nationwide. In the week leading up to this announcement, the pandemic was worsening in the U.S. Meanwhile, scheduled performances for the last few weeks of the quarter were fast approaching. Many student groups putting on these events were left on their own to decide: Should they cancel or not? One of those groups was Tufaan Entertainment.

Tufaan Entertainment is a student group that runs a Bollywood fusion dance competition every year. The competition is a part of a national circuit, and the winners at these events go to Nationals to compete against other top teams. Reema was one of the three co-directors for Tufaan Entertainment, along with Manasa Pagadala and Swetha Marisetty.

REEMA AMIN: The South Asian American dance circuit in the United States is a really, really big cultural phenomenon. Every university and college in the nation, most of them, have a team. And it’s a Bollywood fusion dance style, so the team has this set that’s about eight to nine minutes long, and they have a theme. So a lot of teams will base their theme on a famous movie, or for example, last year, one of the teams did a theme around like the game Clue. They get really funny. They get really cool. And these teams probably practice anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week.

KALEN LUCIANO: Every winter quarter, the show takes place in Cahn Auditorium on the Saturday after finals week, and the proceeds from the competition go to charity. Usually, they donate the money to Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, which supports a school in southern India for children affected by the caste system. But this year, in addition to Shanti Bhavan, they also made a local organization called Open Books a beneficiary.

REEMA AMIN: Basically every year, we donate about $20,000 to them, the proceeds from a show. And so the show tickets are, like, our biggest form of revenue that we donate.

KALEN LUCIANO: This year, the show was scheduled for Saturday, March 21. Two and a half weeks to showtime, Manasa, one of the other co-directors, saw the first warning signs that they might have to cancel.

BROADCAST REPORTER: Northwestern calls off its annual Dance Marathon this weekend over coronavirus concerns.

KALEN LUCIANO: On Wednesday, March 4, University President Morton Schapiro announced that Dance Marathon, scheduled to start Friday, March 6, was canceled.

MANASA PAGADALA: Dance Marathon is such a big part of Northwestern culture, and the fact that something of that caliber got canceled, we started doubting whether Tufaan would be canceled too. Other staff members were like reaching out and asking us, almost every single day like, “Oh my gosh, is Tufaan still happening? Have you heard about this whole coronavirus crisis? All these things are getting canceled.” And then that was where it started getting real for us.

KALEN LUCIANO: For the rest of that week Reema, Manasa and Swetha, tried to convince themselves that they were different from Dance Marathon and that they wouldn’t need to cancel.

MANASA PAGADALA: For the longest time, the three of us were sort of in denial about it because we thought we’re on a different level than Dance Marathon. Dance Marathon is a bunch of sweaty, tired, kind of low-immune like people all in one room because they’re all exhausted and hungry and tired. This is just a dance competition. It’s a lot of people in one room, but it’s also on a completely different level, like people aren’t as exhausted. They’re not dancing for 30 hours or anything. To be completely honest, Tufaan is one of the organizations that’s not super top priority, I think, to administration, even though it has been happening on Northwestern’s campus for the past 10 years, so for us, we thought we would be able to fly under the radar. And only until like our own staff started getting concerned — only then I was like, “This is serious enough where we need to make the decision ourselves.”

KALEN LUCIANO: By that Saturday, March 7, the U.S. had more than 300 confirmed coronavirus cases, and outbreaks in Italy and Iran had worsened. While some schools had moved to online classes, Northwestern was still holding out. Two weeks before the show, the Tufaan co-directors came together with their board to figure out how to keep everyone safe throughout the weekend of the competition.

REEMA AMIN: Back then, we didn’t think we’d have to cancel. Back then, it was more of a talk of what are the precautions that we can take and what are the things that we can do to kind of make sure that we’re running a competition that’s hospitable and takes care of our dancers and make sure that they feel like comfortable being at our show and being around Northwestern the weekend of.

KALEN LUCIANO: When they would get to Northwestern, all teams would stay in the same hotel. They had a mixer planned for Friday night, and Saturday was the show and an afterparty. With the teams in close proximity throughout the whole weekend, the board tried to plan out every precaution to put in place.

REEMA AMIN: We just wanted to make sure they were stocked with yeah obviously basics: hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes. We have this mixer with them. We serve them dinner and they just do activities, and then we realized that itself is a hazard because there’s like 200 people there, right? So that itself is an unsafe environment, social distancing wise. Then we’re like, “OK, so how do we kind of take apart this mixer and serve these teams dinner individually, and how do we prepackage the food that we usually serve buffet style? And it was all of these like little things that we started to pick apart that we were like, “OK, a lot of the parts of how we run this competition are starting to become less and less feasible.”

KALEN LUCIANO: Even though the competition was two weeks away, they had to figure out a solution soon. The group was expected to put down non-refundable payments on Wednesday, March 10, for Cahn Auditorium. By the end of that week, they had payments for food and other parts of the event due. But during the rest of that weekend, their path forward became less clear.

REEMA AMIN: That weekend, I went to like seven or eight different stores with my car just trying to find hand sanitizer and paper towels for these dancers. And I think that’s kind of when the panic started settling in. Is this even going to be feasible? Can we even get the things that we need to even put precautions in place?

KALEN LUCIANO: On Sunday, March 8, reports came out of the first community transmission of the coronavirus in Illinois, as the state confirmed their seventh case.

COMMISSION OF CDPH: This case has not been linked to any travel or to any already confirmed COVID-19 case.

KALEN LUCIANO: On Tuesday, Schapiro sent out an email to the Northwestern community stating that Spring Quarter was planned to go on as scheduled. Meanwhile, The Ohio State University became the first school in the Big Ten to cancel in-person classes, and a number of top-tier universities announced cancelations in response to the coronavirus, including schools where some of the dance teams were coming from. Tufaan’s co-directors watched all this as they tried to grapple with what to do about their event. That Tuesday night, one day before they had to make their first deposit, the co-directors came together to make a decision. The only official guidance from the University came from Schapiro’s email earlier that day, when he asked schools and units to “consider postponing any event or gatherings, either on-campus or off, until April 15.”

REEMA AMIN: That night, Manasa and Swetha came over and the last couple weeks have been crazy for us. We were meeting essentially every night working on stuff for the show, so they came over like usual to my apartment. And we were just sitting at my dining table and talking, and we all kind of were like tiptoeing around the fact that we need to discuss this.

MANASA PAGADALA: Basically, what we said was, “Is the potential risk worth the reward of putting on something we’ve been putting almost a year’s worth of effort into?”

REEMA AMIN: My biggest argument was just the fact that we couldn’t even get our hands on things to keep the dancers safe, so even if we wanted to have this competition, we couldn’t provide hand sanitizer, we couldn’t provide the essentials and necessities. And then also, you know, we started picking apart all of these other factors, the fact that they stay in this hotel, so there’s now there’s like 250 people in one building from all over the nation. Travel was starting to become more of a hazard. So we had the two teams flying in, one from Florida, and one from Texas, so we were worried about them flying in. And a lot of what we thought about was also the audience members.

MANASA PAGADALA: People are gonna be in this big open area, more than like 900 people in Cahn Auditorium that are from all over the nation. Is this really worth it?

REEMA AMIN: It’s not Northwestern students that are coming to our show. It’s these people’s families. It’s these people’s grandparents and their little siblings and their parents. Some of them might be immunocompromised. Some of them might have asthma, so these are the people that we’re thinking about because we can’t invite all these people to our campus, have this audience filled with people, every seat filled, no social distancing by any means. At our age, most of these dancers are 18 to 22 — they might not be showing symptoms. But their grandparents, their parents, these people who are more susceptible to getting sick, that was what we were worried about.

KALEN LUCIANO: After the co-directors talked this through, they had an emergency meeting with the rest of the board that night. At the end of it, they came to a difficult decision.

REEMA AMIN: After everyone left my apartment, it was just me, Manasa and Swetha, and we all kind of broke down and it was like a really emotional night for us. It was a really weird 48 hours for us, so I think on Tuesday when we all kind of decided, “OK, we’re probably not going to have the show,” Manasa and Swetha and I had a really emotional night that night.

MANASA PAGADALA: I always feel bad saying this because it’s like we’re a bunch of privileged kids who like put on this thing and it seems like the most important thing in our lives, but there’s literally people out there dying of coronavirus, so I mean, it’s not even a comparison, right? But like to be completely honest, I was really devastated, and the three of us took it really hard.

KALEN LUCIANO: The next day, Reema, Manasa and Swetha met with their advisor to confirm their plans. When she agreed with their decision, they moved to officially cancel the show.

REEMA AMIN: Basically the only kind of guidance we had on this decision — and even hers wasn’t a policy thing, it was more just like a, “Yeah, I think you guys are thinking the right way. It’s probably a good idea to cancel the show.”

KALEN LUCIANO: Even though she affirmed their decision, they wished the University had helped guide their decision more than they did.

MANASA PAGADALA: It was kind of frustrating because the administration never really reached out to us about it. Yes, we are the presidents, and we have the final decision. But there’s also like a sense of closure when someone tells you, you absolutely can’t do this. We were kind of feeling bad and, like, a little lost. (We), deep down, I think, wanted people to tell us this is wrong, you shouldn’t be doing this, so like not getting that kind of like put us in denial for a little longer than I think it should have.

KALEN LUCIANO: It wasn’t until two days later that Northwestern banned group gatherings of 50 or more people, and as the pandemic worsened, it became clear to them that they made the right decision.

MANASA PAGADALA: In hindsight, considering how dangerous corona(virus) is and how quickly it spreads, I know that it’s not even a comparison, like health versus the work we put in. I feel like corona(virus) wasn’t taken as seriously as I think it is now.

KALEN LUCIANO: As for their beneficiaries, they were still able to make a donation to them.

REEMA AMIN: We haven’t announced our official donation for this year yet, but it’s probably gonna be around $10,000, and that’s just because we have amazing family and friends who donated to our holiday campaign and all these other things that we raise money through.

KALEN LUCIANO: That’s it for this episode of NU Declassified. Thanks for listening.

KALEN LUCIANO: This episode was reported and produced by me, Kalen Luciano. The audio editor is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are myself and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kalenluciano

NU Declassified: To Stay or Not to Stay
Holloway: Faculty strongly encouraged to not hold in-person finals, large gatherings in small spaces canceled
Schapiro: No plans to cancel Spring Break, more information on spring classes to be announced by end of week