The silent majority

As Michigan begins to emerge from the pandemic after more than a year, those who followed the rules now speak out

By: - May 15, 2021 7:41 am

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These are the days of fragile hope.

These days, when the vaccines are here and COVID cases skyrocketed last month but are falling, we talk about our coming returns: to offices we left long ago, to schools, to restaurants and friends’ houses and parents’ dining room tables. We think of hugging those we’ve known only as faces on our computer screens for more than a year. 

We are hopeful, but we are tired. And grieving deeply. These also are days wrapped in trauma, in reminders of all that has been taken from us over these past 14 months: Our parents and best friends and siblings, among so many others, have died; we have not been able to go to the funerals of the people we loved and will forever miss; we have seen our jobs disappear; we have watched our children struggle as they try to figure out what it means to learn amidst the past year’s deep wells of sadness, loneliness and grief.

And so, our hope is fractured, by the numbness and anger and fragility and isolation of this year. Many of us have clawed our way through this time while doing what has been asked of us to keep ourselves and our communities safe: We’ve worn masks; we’ve worked from home when we could; we have seen the walls of our homes far more than we’ve seen many of those we love. 

We haven’t been the ones to fill restaurants without masks or shout from hospital beds that the pandemic is a lie, and, so, we often have not made our way into the news. Notable is our absence, the silence that fills the spaces where we would have been if not for COVID-19: at funerals and weddings, jobs and school desks and Thanksgiving dinners, baby showers and friends’ birthday parties.

But it is that absence that has been so vital this year; it is that emptiness that has paved the way for life. Do not mistake this silence for a lack of numbers: Those of us who have followed the COVID-19 health orders coming from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) fill our state. And, now, after more than a year of listening to the scientists, wearing our masks and social distancing, life is moving towards something almost jarringly familiar, towards something that is beginning to remind us of the lives we were living some 14 months ago. 

As of 9 a.m. Saturday, Michiganders who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer be required by the state to wear masks indoors or outdoors, Whitmer announced Friday. “The vast majority of us have trusted the scientists and experts to keep us safe during the pandemic, and it has worked,” she said. 

The decision follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines released this week that allow fully vaccinated Americans to largely ditch masks and social distancing.

“It’s a huge step on our path back to normal that we’re able to take thanks to the vast majority of Michiganders who have gotten vaccinated and stepped up to protect our communities — we thank you,” Whitmer said in a video posted to Twitter. 

In this time, when we are using words like “normal,” we are thinking of what led us here, of the emptiness and the silence of the past year, and, now, what will fill our days to come.

A ‘poster child’ for health rules

“I’ve been your poster child for mask wearing,” said Adrian Walker, a community leader in Flint. “I wore it so much people would joke with me that you don’t have to have it on all the time, and I was like, ‘No, actually you do.’ I followed the guidelines to a T.”

Walker has been deeply dedicated to following the state’s health guidelines, so much so that when his father, who lived in Georgia, died in July, he did not attend the funeral in person. 

“I wanted to lay my father to rest, but I made a decision to participate in his ceremony virtually,” Walker said. “This was July 2020, Georgia was a hotspot for COVID, and their regulations were way more relaxed than Michigan’s.”

“It was a really tough decision I had to make,” Walker continued. “I went to Georgia for a half-marathon at the end of February, and I got to see my father then. I didn’t know that would be the last time I would see him.”

Adrian Walker, of Flint, is looking forward to races resuming after the pandemic

Now Walker is fully vaccinated, and while he knows life will never be the same as it was, that his father will never again be able to hug him in Georgia, or anywhere, he is hopeful his days will soon be filled with much of what he loves: running races, spending time with family and friends, and working with colleagues he has only seen over Zoom for more than a year. He is hopeful, but, like almost everyone the Advance interviewed, that hope is couched in fatigue. He has spent the pandemic working from home and living by himself, and he misses people — in a way many of us can understand, in a way that is draining and emotionally exhausting. 

“Last summer was still pretty cool because we weren’t trapped inside; I could go outside and see people that way,” Walker said. “But moving into this past fall, things got tougher mentally. I live by myself, and my office is still taking the responsible approach of working remotely — we haven’t been in the office since last March — and it was tough mentally. I missed those social interactions. We all have Zoom fatigue. Although you understood the importance of the health regulations, it was really, really tough.”

Everyone interviewed, of course, had unique circumstances that led to them navigating health mandates differently, but they all made major sacrifices in order to follow the regulations the best they could. Like Walker, Claire Root Benson, who has spent the pandemic with her husband and two small children in their home in Roosevelt Park, also spoke of the inability to attend funerals during the pandemic, and the painful difficulty of processing loss without being able to gather with others who felt and understood her grief.

“My great-uncle died from COVID at the end of March last year, and our family still hasn’t been able to have a memorial service,” she said, noting there was another death in her family, unrelated to COVID, and they have been unable to hold a funeral for that person, as well.

For Root Benson, who runs a youth arts program serving Muskegon Public Schools, there was no question that she, her husband and her children would follow state health guidelines when the pandemic began. They wore masks, socially distanced and her now-6-year-old son did online schooling.

“I think it was absolutely a no-brainer because we were terrified,” Root Benson said. “I think everyone was terrified at the beginning of this, and it’s really hard now to tap into those feelings because all the weariness has won out.”

That fear making way for weariness was spoken of time and again throughout many interviews: it is a weariness borne from living through trauma while having to wade through day-to-day life, from dealing with the constant presence of death while still needing to get up, get dressed, make sure children are safe and fed, go to work, file for unemployment and look for jobs. In other words: live.

What is perhaps so striking, or perhaps will be striking once we’re finally out of this pandemic, is how unextraordinary the stories shared with the Advance are. Not in the sense that they are unimportant — they are deeply important — but rather that they are emblematic of the lives of so many people across this state, country and world. 

They are stories of fear and anguish, of people wondering if they would live long enough to know the pandemic as past, but they are also stories rooted in empathy. It’s a message we’ve heard time and again throughout the pandemic: Stay home and save lives. Wear a mask and save lives. It’s so ubiquitous at this point that the words probably hit many of us like any other slogan — but the ideas behind it are ones that the people interviewed feel deeply.

Bernadette Benkert with her granddaughter, Fiona.

“I have been at home since March of last year; I have lost loved ones and prayed not to get sick because I knew I would die because of my health issues,” said Bernadette Benkert, a Muskegon resident who lost her job in the tourism industry during the pandemic and whose daughter is battling long-haul COVID-19. “I’ve survived, and I’m so thankful I’ve survived, but there is sadness and guilt. How was I not selected [to die]?”

Tami Davis, a Saginaw resident who oversaw a group that made about 20,000 face masks during the pandemic, explained she was especially careful about limiting her exposure to others in order to protect the more vulnerable people around her, like her nearly 80-year-old father who had open heart surgery three years ago and ended up having to get prostate surgery about six weeks after the emergence of COVID-19.

“Calculating risk has been brutal,” Davis said. “My dad is a volunteer fireman, and when there’s a call, he goes to the station. I had to find a way to come to terms that he needed to have his fire department stuff as an outlet; it would’ve been devastating for him if he didn’t. As soon as they opened churches back up, he went to mass with his mask. I made decisions to curtail my activities more than I otherwise would’ve done to let him do more.”

Tami Davis

Other than coordinating face mask efforts and going to work cleaning private residences, including for individuals who are immunocompromised, Davis has tried to severely limit her exposure to other people and places.

“I don’t feel like the overall impact of staying home was negative; what I did feel was negative was the having to go out,” said Davis, who lives with her three children, ages 20, 18 and 16. “With groceries, I didn’t do delivery; I felt an obligation to leave the delivery for the people who needed it more. I think of people like my clients: they needed that and I didn’t. I put on two masks to go grocery shopping; for a while I put on my gloves and I had hand sanitizer slung over my shoulder in a holster.”

Exhaustion sets in

Now after more than a year of carefully following health mandates and  guidelines as much as possible, those interviewed said they feel exhausted. Exhausted that we’re still in this pandemic. Exhausted that Michigan has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country and the third highest number of daily cases. Exhausted by the idea of fast-spreading variants, by people refusing to wear masks or get vaccines, by those who refuse to accept the pandemic as reality.

“In recent weeks, cases have been so high and more kids have been getting it,” Root Benson said at the end of April, when Michigan led the country in COVID-19 cases. “Really? Are we going to be in this mode forever? You’re finally thinking it’s fine to get together as this small family — there’s eight of us and all the adults are vaccinated — and you think, shoot, the kids are still possibly exposed at daycare and school.”

Davis said at the end of April, before new health guidelines were announced, that it felt deeply upsetting to see people without masks.

“To see people just not wearing masks is so frustrating now,” she said. “We’re so close to the end. The people flouting the rules are the ones who make the rules last longer.”

Those who have been largely following state health orders over the past 14 months, as well as health experts, focused on the importance of the vaccines to lead us out of the pandemic.

“There’s the onus on us as a community to do our part and get vaccinated,” Walker said. “I saw it as my personal obligation to protect others from this virus and begin the end of this pandemic.”

As of Saturday, about 4.3 million Michigan residents are fully vaccinated against COVID, or about 53% of the state’s population 16 and older, according to the DHHS. In total, about 7.5 million have received one shot. Older residents have the highest coverage rates in Michigan right now; about 76% of individuals over the age of 65 have received at least one vaccine shot , as state health officials reported.

It’s this growing availability of vaccines, as well as the GOP-controlled Legislature’s longstanding opposition to health regulations from the governor and the DHHS, that a number of those we interviewed said made them understand why Whitmer and state health officials did not impose any new mandates when the latest surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations began in March. 

While Michigan had the country’s highest number of COVID-19 cases last month, those numbers have dropped by 53% since an April 8 high, according to state health officials. COVID-19 deaths also remain high but are decreasing, dropping by 14% since last week, according to DHHS. Michigan still has the highest death rate in the country, health officials reported. But hospitalizations are down, going from a peak of about 4,400 in mid-April to 2,322 as of Saturday.

“The governor’s hands are so tied,” Davis said at the end of April. “If she tried to [implement new mandates], people would just ignore it. I don’t feel she can do it anymore. God bless her. She’s in a hell of a position.”

Michigan Health and Hospital Association CEO Brian Peters

Michigan Health and Hospital Association Chief Executive Officer Brian Peters said that “another round of shutdowns could have unintended consequences of people rebelling and not getting vaccinated.”

Health experts said it’s difficult to say for certain what was behind Michigan having the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country, but they pointed to fast-spreading variants and the reopening of high school sports as two potential factors. 

“We reopened a lot of things in early March, including school sports, and started to have a lot of outbreaks, particularly around school sports and younger age groups in general,” said Dr. Joshua Petrie, a research assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Peters said the availability of the vaccines has played a crucial role in prompting a recent “striking decline” in Michigan’s COVID-19 hospitalizations. Experts also point to antibody treatments being more readily available.

While Peters said health officials aren’t completely certain as to why there has been a more rapid decline in hospitalizations than occurred in the state’s first couple of COVID-19 surges, he noted, “The one thing that’s different this time around is we have a new tool in our toolbox and that’s the vaccine, which is making its way to a growing number of Michiganders.”

“That’s our core message right now: to keep the numbers down, we have to get as many Michiganders vaccinated as possible,” Peters continued. “When you look at inpatient hospitalizations, those are coming almost entirely from non-vaccinated Michiganders.”

There is an end to all of this, Peters said. He expects numbers will continue to drop as the warm weather arrives and people have safer outdoor options for activities, while more continue to get vaccinated.

“Even with the absence of a vaccine, we saw statewide numbers decline significantly [last summer],” Peters said. “Hopefully that history repeats itself, and now we have the added benefit of having the vaccine.”

Ultimately, those interviewed said life will move closer to what we once knew. There will still be grief — health experts have said we’ll likely be processing the trauma from this pandemic for years to come — but there will also be joy and laughter and the ability to be with people. 

Benkert said she’s excited to continue being with her daughters and her granddaughter; Walker can’t wait to see his colleagues in person again and is hoping to soon run in the races he’s desperately missed. The coming days mean Davis will finally get to see someone she loves who lives in Canada, and her excitement is palpable when she talks about returning to the stands of a baseball game.

For Root Benson, she’s hoping there’s less of a return to what we once knew and instead a future that encompasses the conversations and actions around racial justice that the country turned towards after a police officer murdered George Floyd last summer.

“I’ve been grateful conversations are being had surrounding America’s racial reckoning,” she said. “It’s just sad that something that traumatized all of white people is what it took for that to happen.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.