Demise of popular Oak Park Coronavirus Facebook group highlights pandemic’s divisions – Chicago Tribune

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The final argument in the 4,500-member Oak Park Coronavirus Facebook group earlier this month was more exhausted than fierce.
After someone posted an article about long COVID, a lengthy debate ensued with dozens of comments, many of which veered well beyond the content of the article. The tone was often less than polite, and some exchanges fizzled out with a shrug.
“We’re not going to convince each other … so I’ll give you this time back rather than spending the time arguing with me,” one commenter wrote.
Such squabbling is typical in online discourse, but it had grown increasingly common within the group as the pandemic dragged on. The next day, its administrators decided it was time to say goodbye.
“It got a little complicated and dicey and way too opinionated,” said public health educator Ayesha Akhtar, who had been with the group since its start in March 2020. “I think it goes to show that the group fulfilled its purpose and we’re ready to close it down.”
It was an abrupt end to a resource once seen as so vital that its founder, tech executive Josh Vanderberg, was named a Villager of the Year by a local newspaper. But in some ways, the group’s evolution tracked the course of the pandemic, as broad agreement on how to respond to COVID-19 curdled into discord.
“When someone is writing in caps, ‘THIS IS OVER, STOP PRETENDING,’ (they ignore that) thousands of people died in the last week,” said Aaron McManus, a tech recruiter who participated in the group. “What do you do when you can’t agree on reality? How do you have a community conversation about the decisions to make?”
Vanderberg said he started the group when local data on the virus was still hard to find. He and others posted charts showing the steep rise in positive tests and other worrying metrics, along with news stories, messages of support for health workers and memes encouraging masking and social distancing.
The group also helped people find appointments in the early days of the vaccine. Charlie Meyerson, publisher of and a former Tribune columnist, recalled learning through the group that he could help an eligible relative get a shot when appointments were still scarce.
“That prompted a drive down to Springfield to get the first vaccine for a member of my family,” he said. “That was very useful information.”
The group’s administrators approved each post, which avoided the conspiracy mongering abundant elsewhere. And in a politically unified community like Oak Park — nearly 90% of its voters went for Joe Biden in 2020 — there wasn’t much dissent about what needed to be done.
“Early on there definitely was a bias of wanting people to do more to mitigate this rather than less,” Vanderberg said. “But that changed when the vaccine came around. That was kind of the breaking point.”
The arguments weren’t about the vaccines themselves — about 80% of Oak Park residents and a similar portion of public school students have gotten their shots — but about the level of safety they provided.
One camp believed the vaccines gave enough protection for life to return to its pre-pandemic state. The other thought the risk was still too high to do away with mandatory masking and other measures.
As in other towns, schools became a flashpoint. When in-person classes returned last year, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 required children to wear masks during recess and eat lunch with a minimum of chatter.
The policies are stricter than those of other districts, but spokeswoman Amanda Siegfried said the schools haven’t received a cascade of complaints. The outdoor masking rule was lifted last week, and contrary to what some parents contend, “silent lunch” was never the rule, she said.
Stephanie Harris was one of the Facebook group members advocating for more relaxed policies, but she said her contributions weren’t always posted. Other times, she said, fellow commenters falsely labeled her as anti-vaccine or anti-mask.
“What happened was the noise of the conflict became louder for a lot of people than the useful debate,” she said. “Certain members of the group became very hostile to any views that were not advocating for extreme, conservative mitigations.”
Conversely, Dr. Robin Kalish, a pediatrician, said she felt compelled to push back on what she regarded as misinformation within the group.
“(Many) people stated that after vaccines other mitigations were no longer needed, which we saw was clearly not the case with omicron,” she said.
Vanderberg stepped away from the group last summer, turning it over to fellow administrators when his views on reopening diverged from the more cautious majority opinion.
“I just got very frustrated,” he said. “It became evident that they’ve kind of been coming along with me because I was originally saying the things that they wanted to hear, but when I followed the data and the science toward more opening up, they weren’t ready to go along with me.”
He started another Facebook group a few months ago with a pointed name: Oak Park Back to Normal. It has around 340 members so far and a more activist bent, with numerous posts agitating for District 97 to eliminate its indoor mask mandate.
Siegfried said that policy will continue for the time being, but the village of Oak Park will lift its mask and proof of vaccination mandates Monday, thanks to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that puts Cook County at the lowest risk level.
Still, the pandemic has had several false dawns, and Akhtar said the original Facebook group, which remains archived online, can always resume if circumstances change.
“We served a really great purpose to be completely neutral — that repository of basic information,” she said.
Some participants are sorry the group has ended. Meyerson, who sparred with other commenters over the village’s short-lived ban on extracurricular school activities in December, said he thought disagreements were hashed out in good faith.
“Certainly in the thick of the pandemic, about a year ago, it was a very, very useful resource and I’m tremendously grateful to the people who founded and moderated it,” he said. “It was an example in its prime of Facebook at its best.”
Twitter @JohnKeilman
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune




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