Capturing shutdown in America's heartland

From empty landscapes and socially distant celebrations to protests at state capitols, these photos reveal how Midwesterners adapted to—and sometimes chafed against—life in a pandemic. Published June 12, 2020
Photograph by David Guttenfelder

Farmington, Minnesota

In April, I began photographing how the coronavirus is affecting communities across the Midwest, using a drone in addition to my usual cameras. When I meet people, I hold up my drone and ask, “May I take your picture with my flying social distance camera?” A common Midwest response, and my favorite, is, “Do what you’ve got to do.”

April 9, 2020 Surrounded by balloons and signs, Dave Lundberg celebrates his 50th birthday from his front yard in Farmington, Minnesota, greeting well-wishers as they drive by honking their horns.

bridge over river

Minneapolis, Minnesota

April 3, 2020 Empty of traffic, the Hennepin Avenue bridge spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A drone is the perfect camera for capturing the bleakness of landscapes and towns stricken by the pandemic.

people in masks praying in church.

St. Paul, Minnesota

April 26, 2020 Worshippers at the New Hope Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, wear masks and keep their distance during Sunday morning services. The church, which had been holding drive-in services in its parking lot, invited congregants to return to the pews with new safety precautions in place—and a live streaming broadcast for those who prefer to stay home.

empty city space with building and mural reflecting in the puddle.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

April 3, 2020 Minnesota native Bob Dylan is depicted in a mural—titled The Times They Are A-Changing—overlooking the vacant streets and parking lots of downtown Minneapolis.

person in Easter Bunny costume approaching house.

Lake Mills, Iowa

April 11, 2020 Dressed as a mask-wearing Easter Bunny, Treize VanHeiden delivers Girl Scout cookies on Easter weekend in Lake Mills, Iowa. He and his mother, Ona VanHeiden, sought to celebrate the holiday responsibly after the local egg hunt was canceled to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

empty streets from above.

Hector, Minnesota

April 4, 2020 The seemingly deserted city of Hector, Minnesota, which closed its parks and government services to comply with statewide stay-at-home orders.

one person in full body coverup and another I mask.

Grand Island, Nebraska

May 6, 2020 Members of the Nebraska National Guard conduct mobile testing at the State Fairgrounds in Grand Island, Nebraska, as part of the Test Nebraska initiative. The community became a COVID-19 hotspot after hundreds of workers at the JBS meatpacking plant tested positive. The plant has not closed during the pandemic.

glass store wall with apple logo and black bird waling along it.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

April 27, 2020 A wild turkey walks past an Apple store in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood, where businesses had been shuttered for weeks.

protestors in front of State Capital building

Madison, Wisconsin

April 24, 2020 Protesters, some carrying weapons, rally around the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, calling for Governor Tony Evers to reopen the state after weeks of living under a stay-at-home order. On May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the governor's order, ruling it "unlawful" and "unenforceable.”

lonely figure of person seating on bench at bus stop.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

April 16, 2020 Outside the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a maintenance worker waits for public transportation. The plant was temporarily closed in April when it became the epicenter of a large cluster of COVID-19 cases, with more than 800 of its 3,700 workers testing positive.

people looking at butchered hogs

Wanamingo, Minnesota

April 25, 2020 Lindsey Fulton, owner of Blondie’s Butcher Shop, stands over a butchered hog in Wanamingo, Minnesota. When regional pork processing plants closed temporarily due to coronavirus outbreaks, her small business worked overtime to accommodate local farmers.

people walking on the middle of street

Hartland, Minnesota

April 11, 2020 Residents take a walk on an otherwise empty street in Hartland, Minnesota.

people staying in line to ice cream store

Owatonna, Minnesota

April 27, 2020 Customers keep their distance as they line up at The S’Cream, a walk-up ice cream shop in Owatonna, Minnesota. Nancy and Gale Crandall, who have owned the shop for more than 25 years, consulted with a state food inspector before reopening on March 29. “Our customers were reaching out to us for comfort food at a time when not many things as we know it were normal,” says Gale Crandall.

person walking along country road between fields.

Zumbrota, Minnesota

April 25, 2020 A lone walker gets some exercise on a long country road outside of Zumbrota, Minnesota. The state went on lockdown on March 27 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order, which has since been relaxed, allowed for socially distant recreation in addition to essential needs and services.

children on trampoline.

Austin, Minnesota

April 25, 2020 Brontie Jeffers’ grandchildren play in their backyard in Austin, Minnesota. Governor Tim Walz closed the state’s public schools on March 18, tasking them with developing distance learning plans instead.

church from above

Northern Minnesota

April 5, 2020 In northern Minnesota, the parking lot at the Church of St. Patrick sits empty during what would have been Sunday mass.

classic car on empty street

Casey, Iowa

May 3, 2020 Family members wait in their classic car to lead a parade through downtown Casey, Iowa, celebrating graduates of the high school class of 2020.

black stature in mask under falling snow

Minneapolis, Minnesota

April 9, 2020 Snow falls on a roadside statue of Bigfoot wearing a face mask in Knapp, Wisconsin.