Strange Matter Coffee employees in Lansing have worn masks throughout the pandemic. | Courtesy photo
KC Laskey can count the number of students who usually wear masks in her son’s kindergarten classroom in West Michigan on one hand — and the number of COVID-19 cases in his classroom last week on two.
“He is one of two wearing masks at school; since omicron quieted down, there have been two wearing masks,” said Laskey, who lives in Grand Rapids. “However, this week there are four joining him; there were six COVID cases in the class last week. And we were not notified by the school; we found out through text chains.”
A drop in masking amidst a new rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is a story being told across the state and country. While there have long been vocal anti-maskers spewing conspiracy-filled rage at school board and local government meetings — as well as in the Michigan Legislature — masking among the general public has declined.
About half of Americans have worn a mask — something that studies have shown time and again to be effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and which the country’s major medical organizations have backed — outside their house in the past seven days, according to a Gallup poll released May 11. Gallup noted that’s a number not seen since April 2020, a time when we were just getting used to pandemic practices.
And for the first time since pollsters started asking Americans about their opinions on state or local governments requiring masks in public places, an Axios/Ipsos survey from April reported the majority of participants — 56% — were opposed to the mandates.
As has been the case for most of the pandemic, Democrats are more willing than Republicans to wear masks and adopt other pandemic-related health precautions. According to a Pew Research poll released May 11, 42% of Democrats say they’ve been wearing a mask frequently when inside stores and businesses compared to 14% of Republicans.
Part of the reason a good chunk of our society isn’t wearing masks, public health experts said, is rooted in COVID-19 fatigue. We, as a society, just don’t want there to be a pandemic. We’re tired of wearing masks; we’re tired of thinking of this virus that has upended our lives for more than two years.
The majority of the population in both the state and country have gotten vaccinated (though only about one-third in Michigan have been vaccinated and boosted), and people want to fill concert halls and restaurants. We want our lives to be that ever-ubiquitous goal cited throughout the pandemic: normal.
Here’s the thing, medical professionals, parents and business owners who continue to don masks told the Advance: Life isn’t normal. There’s still a pandemic.
True, cases and hospitalizations are far less than they were during a months-long surge this past fall and winter. But as mask requirements are dropped from schools to public transportation and businesses, COVID-19 is still here, still spreading, and still evading our immunity with its constant mutations. A pandemic that has killed 36,064 Michiganders and more than 1 million people in the United States continues to claim lives.
“I think you still have to be cautious,” said Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who also works with HIV patients through the Ingham County Health Department. “You can’t put down your guard and say nobody’s sick. People are sick.
“I still wear masks,” Gulick continued. “I work at the Health Department in Lansing, and we’re all required to wear masks here, but even if we weren’t I’d wear one. I wear a mask in restaurants; I take it off to eat. I wear a mask when I’m in a room that’s poorly ventilated. I wore a mask at my son’s graduation. I work out at a gym, and I’m the only one who wears a mask. Sometimes when you wear a mask, people look at you, but most times they leave you alone. I could care less; I wear it because I don’t want to get COVID. I still think the mask is a very important entity; I think it can’t go away.”
While fewer people are wearing masks, there are still plenty of those who agree with Gulick and who continue to prioritize donning a face covering in various places, from classrooms to grocery stores and at work.
The details behind people wearing masks vary — of those the Advance interviewed, some have relatives battling cancer; others have seen parents fighting for their lives on ventilators — but the sentiment that kept being repeated in interviews was: We don’t know what other people are going through, and if we can prevent people from getting sick and dying by wearing a mask, why wouldn’t we?
It’s really heartbreaking to see no one cares about protecting the tiniest people.
– KC Laskey, a Grand Rapids resident and parent of three young children
“We’ve learned a lot [about preventing COVID-19], and hopefully people don’t throw it all out the window,” said Laskey, who continues to wear a mask along with her husband and three small sons, one in kindergarten, another in preschool and one who was born two years ago, at the start of the pandemic. “I hope people start caring more about each other.”
“We know families undergoing cancer treatments or living with grandparents,” she added. “All my children are highly asthmatic, and I’m asthmatic. You don’t know what’s going on in anybody’s life.”
Plus, Laskey noted, there are still millions in the United States under age 5 who don’t yet have access to a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s really heartbreaking to see no one cares about protecting the tiniest people,” she said.
In addition to those still unable to access a vaccine, millions more are immunocompromised — people who, for example, are undergoing chemo treatments or have gotten an organ transplant — and are particularly susceptible to serious illness, even if they’ve been vaccinated.
And while getting vaccinated and boosted almost guarantees you won’t end up in the hospital with a serious case of COVID-19 if you’re younger and healthier, there are still risks — and it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get what’s known as “long COVID.” Long COVID is a chronic illness that leaves individuals, including children, living with a wide variety of often debilitating COVID symptoms for months, or even longer, past their original COVID diagnosis.
Gulick and Dr. Nirali Bora, the medical director at the Kent County Health Department in West Michigan, noted that even people who are vaccinated, boosted and end up having minor COVID-19 cases, including being asymptomatic, can get long COVID.
“Sometimes I worry more about post-COVID syndrome than the actual acute COVID,” Gulick said, using another term for long COVID. “I’ve seen some people in my clinic [with long COVID], and they’re so debilitated that they have to go on disability.”
Masks are about more than physical health
Since the start of the pandemic, Cara Nader, the owner of Strange Matter Coffee in Lansing, has taken the health precautions seriously. She has worn masks; she didn’t go to restaurants for two years or travel anywhere.
And as other businesses dropped mask requirements during the surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the fall and winter, Strange Matter was still requiring them of both workers and customers.
“Most of our decisions have been made through anonymous staff surveys, and we do that about once a month, or if there’s a big change in case count we’ll send out a survey,” Nader said of the current decision to require employees to wear masks and “strongly recommend” that customers do as well.
“We’ve only had it not mandatory for about a month for customers, and at least 75% of customers are still masked in the shop,” Nader said.
From the start of the pandemic, Nader said it’s been “such a serious and important thing for us to promote mask wearing.”
“I really think we don’t get a lot of blowback from it; we’ve gotten rid of the anti-maskers for our pro-choice stances, our fundraisers for Planned Parenthood; our customers were already on board with the way we do things,” Nader said.
She was referring to the fact that individuals against masking have, for most of the pandemic, been right-wingers often prone to believing in conspiracy theories about COVID and the 2020 election. Anti-mask rallies in Michigan and across the country have typically been filled with GOP officials, militia members, election conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters and anti-vaxxers.
For Nader, mask wearing is also about more than physical health. It’s about making sure her staff — some of whom have gotten seriously ill with COVID-19 and have seen friends and family members get sick and die from the virus — know there are plenty of people who recognize the seriousness of the pandemic, even when it seems like so many want to forget it entirely.
“The majority of staff have had experiences with COVID, whether personal or in their family — knowing people who are seriously ill or passed away,” said Nader, who got COVID-19 in January 2021 and has been suffering from long COVID since then. “Masking is one of the things we can do to make us as a staff feel more safe. A lot of people think it’s about them — ‘I don’t want to wear a mask’ — but it’s not about you. It’s about the people you come into contact with in public.”
There have been people who have refused to wear masks in the shop and have gotten angry and combative with workers, which Nader said has “been a very stressful experience for staff having to interact with people who are rude and aggressive.”
“They don’t care if you live or die, but they want you to make them coffee,” Nader said. “How do you deal with that, that there’s a portion of the population that just doesn’t care if you live or die?”
That deeply resonates with Nader herself as she navigates a life with long COVID.
“I’ve been suffering from long COVID for over a year now, and it’s destroyed my ability to function, honestly,” she said. “It’s changed our priorities. It’s definitely health over coffee profit. If someone won’t wear a mask, I don’t need that money. Or maybe I do, but it’s not worth it to me.”
They don’t care if you live or die, but they want you to make them coffee. How do you deal with that, that there’s a portion of the population that just doesn’t care if you live or die?
– Cara Nader, the owner of Strange Matter Coffee in Lansing
At one point, the long COVID symptoms were so bad that Nader couldn’t catch her breath while speaking a sentence. While she “can speak and breathe now,” the “fatigue and lung damage are super-terrible.”
“I’m hopefully starting the post-COVID clinic at [the University of Michigan] soon, but the doctors have no idea what to do,” she said. “My heart rate never drops below 100 now. When I go for a 10-minute walk, it will go up to 150, 170.
“The lingering symptoms are really, really hard, and I have no idea how somebody who doesn’t have the privilege I do of running my own business and making my own schedule lives,” she continued. “If I had to punch a clock and work eight hours a day, I couldn’t do it. I can barely handle a six-hour day these days.”
Like everyone else interviewed by the Advance for this story, Nader said there’s something of a disbelief that, after more than 1 million people have died in the United States and as others battle long-term disabilities from COVID, there remain glib or antagonistic attitudes towards public health measures.
“A lot of coffee shops on the West Coast have vaccine requirements to dine in,” she said. “It’s not a thing people are protesting in the street; they’re just taking care of each other. I wonder what makes the Midwest and South so different. It’s really weird and disheartening.”
Now, as Nader thinks of the future, of days trying to navigate life and business in a world still filled with COVID-19, she said she expects cases will, once again, rise when the warmth of the summer subsides and the colder days of fall and winter appear.
“I expect we’ll need to renew our mask requirement,” Nader said. “I’m kind of just trying to enjoy the moment right now. I’m assuming there will be another downturn. My plan is assuming we’ll go through these ups and downs [of COVID-19 cases] for at least a few years.”
‘He was the only student wearing a mask’
As local health departments and school districts have dropped mask requirements, with the last batch of mandates largely ending after the surge in COVID cases died down in February, parents have been left to navigate what they said often feels like a pandemic minefield.
Schools frequently do not provide parents with information about COVID-19 outbreaks in a classroom, as was the case with Laskey, and students wearing masks are typically in the minority.
“Thinking the numbers were going down, my kids went back to [in-person] school a month ago,” said Amanda Bennett, who lives in Birmingham and whose children in fifth and second grades have been doing virtual schooling for the majority of the pandemic.
“We knew there wasn’t going to be a mask mandate; we weren’t comfortable with that, but they’ve been out for two years and they really needed to go back,” Bennett said. “We decided they would wear a mask and go back. Now, my second-grader has COVID. I went to a Mother’s Day function at my son’s class, and he was the only student wearing a mask. Same with my other kid. They’re comfortable with being in the minority, but it’s not fairly easy either.”
While Bennett said she understands “the desire not to mask,” she would have liked to see a mask requirement remain in place for this school year.
“People are still dying from COVID every single day,” she said. “It seems like we’re going to have to live with it somehow. If masks are as effective as we’ve been told, I’d really like to see people continue to wear them.”
Parents alarmed at few to no pandemic health precautions being taken at schools said they’d like to see districts offer virtual learning options.
“We’re in a district that dropped virtual programs, which I’ve found really frustrating,” Bennett said.
If districts could provide virtual school options — particularly when case numbers rise — that would provide deep relief for parents and students, Bennett and Laskey said. Laskey, for example, ended up keeping her son in kindergarten home “for most of January because it just wasn’t worth it to expose him in the midst of everything going on.”
While both Bennett and Laskey said they’ve considered pulling their students from their respective districts because of concerns over the pandemic, they said ultimately they haven’t because of few other options.
“If we found other schools that were doing things more seriously, then we would certainly consider that, but I don’t know that there’s another school nearby that’s taking it more seriously,” said Laskey, who returned to her job two weeks ago after not working since April 2020. “The only option is to homeschool, but I don’t know with a 2, 4 and 6-year-old that I’m set up to do that.”
Sometimes when you wear a mask, people look at you, but most times they leave you alone. I could care less; I wear it because I don’t want to get COVID. I still think the mask is a very important entity; I think it can’t go away.
– Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine
‘I get nervous saying anything because people have been so vilified’
As Bora, the medical director with the Kent County Health Department, spoke to the Advance about the benefits of masks— she still wears masks in public — the doctor noted that she felt anxious about the interview.
“I get nervous saying anything because people have been so vilified; I get nervous that whatever I say will be seen as the wrong thing,” Bora said. “I wish we could come together as a community and protect those who are most vulnerable.”
Public health workers across the state and country have faced intense criticism and death threats over COVID-19 health mandates, such as school mask requirements, and abuse and violence against public health officials have prompted a large exodus of people from the field.
In Michigan, nine of the state’s 45 health department officers have left during the pandemic, according to the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. Some of those were planned retirements, but some were because of the tensions stemming from pandemic health requirements, Michigan Association for Local Public Health Executive Director Norm Hess said in a previous interview.
Lisa Peacock, for example, resigned as health officer at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan at the end of April after anger from the public over a school mask mandate became so intense that she was afraid for her life.
Peacock, like numerous health department directors, had issued a school mask mandate after the state did not do so. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer originally mandated that anyone in a school wear a mask during the 2020 school year, the GOP-appointed majority on the state Supreme Court struck down her executive orders in October 2020 and the Republican-led Legislature rescinded her ability to issue executive orders in the summer of 2021.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services still has the ability to implement a mask mandate, but it chose not to do so this school year, leaving local health and education administrators to act and, often, incur wrath from an angry public.
After Peacock issued her mask mandate on Aug. 27, the public outrage was unlike anything she’d experienced, the former health officer said.
“It immediately shifted to something really scary,” she said. “I received lots and lots of voicemails and threats. People told me, ‘You’re a disgusting person who hates children, and I hope you burn in hell.’”
In Berrien County, two high-ranking health department officials resigned last fall over the politicization of the pandemic. And in the county where Bora works, Kent County, the health department’s director went public with threats against him after implementing a mask mandate.
“It’s hard on our staff,” Bora said of animosity towards public health officials. “It’s navigating a whole different space than public health has ever been used to. What we’re doing is for the greater good. It’s not to hurt anybody. It truly is just to keep people as healthy as possible. We don’t have a political bent.”
Bora said she is continuing to wear masks in public places, like grocery stores.
“People will say, ‘It makes me anxious to wear a mask because nobody else is,’ so I wear a mask because I want to normalize it,” she said.
‘I don’t think you’re going to see mask requirements’
With the majority of the state’s population being vaccinated against COVID-19 and with variants of the virus being more contagious but less deadly, Ingham County Health Department Health Officer Linda Vail said it’s unlikely there will be future mask mandates or other pandemic-related health requirements.
“It would have to be a variant that was seriously concerning, evading all immunity and the vaccine,” Vail said of implementing another mask mandate. “I don’t think you’re going to see mask requirements.”
The Ingham County Health Department had mandated masks in K-12 schools but dropped that requirement in February as the number of cases and hospitalizations decreased.
While public health experts said that, in the early days of the pandemic, they were hopeful the American public would adopt mask wearing past COVID-19 and, for example, don them during flu season. The flu disappeared for a large part of the pandemic, largely because people were wearing masks, experts said.
However, the tsunami of anger over pandemic health mandates makes it unlikely that there will be a shift and more Americans will wear masks in the coming months and years, Vail said.
(My son) is one of two wearing masks at school; since omicron quieted down, there have been two wearing masks. However, this week there are four joining him; there were six COVID cases in the class last week. And we were not notified by the school; we found out through text chains.
– KC Laskey, a parent from Grand Rapids
“The public will have to decide and say, ‘Hey last flu season we were wearing masks and we didn’t have the flu; I’m going to wear a mask during flu season,’” she said. “Is the American public going to do that? I don’t know. Some will and some won’t. Unfortunately I’m guessing there will be the typical mask debates and mask wars over that.
“You’ll see people chiding people for wearing masks and chiding people for not wearing masks,” she continued. “Just leave people alone. It’s amazing to me the number of people out there that were angry that we offer a vaccine clinic.”
Similarly, Bora said she doubts there’s “much willingness to change,” even when cases will likely rise again in the fall.
“I think maybe there’s hope in other parts of the country,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s hope here. The nice thing now compared to before is people who want to protect themselves can with the vaccine.”
While Bora doubts people will change and an overwhelming majority of people will begin to wear masks, she still holds hope for that possibility.
“You never know what people’s lives are like,” she said. “I have a family member with cancer. You don’t know other people’s situations. I want people to have respect for that.”
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