An eerily empty UC Berkeley adjusts to a world with the coronavirus

At UC Berkeley this week, professors taught in nearly empty classrooms using videoconferences. Many students headed home. Sproul Plaza was practically deserted.

classroom
Classes at UC Berkeley were virtually deserted Tuesday. Photo: Brandon Yung

UC Berkeley Professor Karen Chapple held her Tuesday morning class in front of a nearly empty lecture hall. When the projector displayed a question prompt, a webchat on Chapple’s laptop screen lit up with responses from students watching a livestream of the lecture.

The lecture hall in Wurster 112, and others across campus, sat virtually deserted in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

On Monday, UC Berkeley announced it would suspend most in-person classes until March 29, the end of spring break. Some laboratory classes, studio, performing arts and PE classes were to continue as normal, Paul A. Alivisatos, the executive vice chancellor and provost, and Oliver O’Reilly, chair of the academic senate, wrote in an email. The campus, including its libraries, is still open.

UC Berkeley is just one of many universities around the country that has tried to stem the transmission of COVID-19 by reducing human contact. Stanford University, Columbia University, Ohio State University and UCLA, among others, have moved classes online. In an attempt to “de-densify” its campus, Harvard University has told its students to go home, giving them until Sunday to vacate their dorms. The Peralta Community College District, which includes Berkeley City College, has just canceled in-person classes as well, at least in the short term.


The city of Berkeley’s Public Health Division is overseeing two people with the coronavirus. One of them had visited Italy, where 10,000 people have come down with the virus, and the other was a passenger on the Grand Princess cruise ship that docked in Oakland on Monday. There has not been any community spread of the virus yet in Berkeley, the city said Wednesday, but the health department has asked people to limit their attendance at “mass gatherings.” No cases have been detected at UC Berkeley, the campus has said.

Cal’s cancellation of in-person classes had a dramatic effect on campus this week, where there were no tables lining Sproul Plaza during lunch, few students mingling, and no students or groups talking from the steps overlooking the plaza.

The cancellation of in-person classes is a test of resiliency for a community already familiar with accommodating calamity, said Chapple, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

“Only the fires had forced us to deal with instructional resilience,” said Chapple, referencing the 2018 Camp Fire smoke that shut down classes. “But this is surpassing that in scale by far… because we don’t know if this is the rest of the semester or two weeks. With fire season you know it’s going to go away eventually because it’s going to rain.”

The cancellation of in-person classes was a surprise, she said. Campus leadership have held daily phone calls since late last week to discuss options, and on Friday it didn’t seem like canceling classes was imminent, she said.


“We didn’t realize that by Monday [they] would have changed their mind to do everything online,” said Chapple.

As she packed up after class, Chapple explained that, while the move on behalf of campus administrators was necessary, she wasn’t too concerned about the long-term health of students. Her concern was with the elderly population and those with compromised immune systems, whose mortality rates are significantly higher upon coronavirus infection.

“I am actually not that worried about Berkeley students. You’re young and healthy. There’s also vulnerable faculty. There’s something like 10% of the faculty are over 70 and 20% are over 64,” Chapple said.

Student: “When you walk to Sather Gate it’s like nobody’s there”

student rolling suitcase down sidewalk
Some UC Berkeley students took advantage of no in-class learning to head home. Photo: Brandon Yung

On the sidewalks lining Berkeley’s Southside neighborhood on Tuesday, many students packed luggage into cars to head home. With the return migration, compounded by a general mindset to avoid packed places, the Cafe 3 dining hall at 2400 Durant Ave. was unusually sparse.

“I’ve never seen Cafe 3 this empty at this time,” said Eve Uriarte, a campus freshman. “Everything is empty. The gym is usually, like, packed… And when you walk to Sather Gate it’s like nobody’s there.”


Uriarte is one of many students planning on skipping town, without any obligation to be physically present. Meanwhile, others decided to stay put and enjoy the temperate Bay Area spring weather.

A hand sanitizing station sits in the entrance to Blackwell Hall, a UC Berkeley dorm
A hand sanitizing station sits in the entrance to Blackwell Hall, a UC Berkeley dorm. Photo: BrandonYug

The leafy canopied patio of Caffè Strada just south of campus was still bustling as much as it would any other weekday. Sophomore Yasmin Gehman met with a friend over coffee. Despite canceled in-person classes, Gehman said she tends to “be pretty nonchalant in general about these things,” a nod to the Camp Fire smoke and more recent PG&E shutoffs that also caused class cancellations. By the week’s end, she added that she will be one of six residents still remaining in Delta Gamma, her sorority.

Cafe Strada at Bancroft and College Avenues was bustling this week. Photo: Brandon Yung

“I’m kind of indifferent at the moment and more fearful if classes are going to be canceled for the rest of the semester, rather than contracting the virus. If I get it then I get it, there’s not much I can do about that,” Gehman said over a cup of iced coffee.