USA Today

American Virus

On Feb. 29, 2020, hundreds of people packed into the Pullman Christian Reformed Church, a squat, beige brick building on Chicago’s South Side. An attendee began the ceremonies by blasting a shofar, the trumpet made out of a ram’s horn. Somebody played keyboard. And a long line of people waited to speak into a microphone about their memories of Angeli Demus. 

The lifelong Chicagoan, who had died a month earlier at age 59, insisted she didn’t want it called a funeral. “Donate, cremate, celebrate,” had been her credo to her family near the end of a gutting battle with lung cancer, and with her eyes donated and her body cremated, all that was left was this party. 

Her husband, Earl Demus, billed it as “Angeli’s Joyous Celebration,” and thought that the crowd it gathered spoke to his wife’s beloved nature. “Standing room only,” recounted Demus, who estimated there were more than 450 people there. “I stopped counting after a while.”

The disconcerting news story that seemed recently to creep into every conversation, particularly after it tanked the stock market the previous week, didn’t make it past the doors of the church. Nobody wore a mask or kept their distance, and for the most part nobody even talked about the novel coronavirus. It had only started to trickle into the United States, as far as anybody knew, and the few cases in Illinois were said to be isolated and controlled.

A top health official had a week earlier assured Chicagoans that “the health risk to the general public from novel coronavirus remains low,” and the outlook from the highest levels of government was that, nationally, the few instances of the virus were disappearing. President Donald Trump had said three days earlier there were 15 cases in the country, and “the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”

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