The Angry Protest Images From Michigan Don't Tell The Whole Story As The State Decides How To Reopen

The nation is seeing groups of angry protesters, some with face masks and others carrying rifles — on TV and on social media. But many people in the state don't agree on when business should reopen.

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The coronavirus shutdown has cost Nadine Maliniak all of her April and May bookings at the five-room bed and breakfast she runs in Lexington about two blocks from the Lake Huron shore.

"I need to get open, but I am a little bit afraid," said Maliniak, whose husband has health troubles.

Mike Jones owns 10 cottages just south of Frankfort, a short walk from the shores of Lake Michigan. He's more confident, saying that with the right precautions, he can operate safely.

"It's gonna be a new, different normal, but I think we have to move forward. There's not much choice," Jones said.

As the state prepares to reopen the economy after a stay-at-home order that has been in place since early March, even people in the same business are unsure about how to proceed.

In stark contrast to what the nation is seeing on TV and on social media — groups of angry protesters, some with face masks and others carrying rifles, entering the state capitol in Lansing on Thursday demanding an end to the state of emergency — these outstate Michiganders are struggling to find consensus.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this week announced a plan that creates eight geographic regions that could potentially reopen for business on different schedules depending on how active the virus is in those areas. During a debate this week, state Sen. Ed McBroom said different regions of the state have different needs.

“I have five counties that don’t have a single case," said McBroom, who represents the western Upper Peninsula. "I have hospitals that are not going to make it and are sitting there empty, getting the slow roll.”

McBroom said that if the situation were reversed, and a virus was raging in the U.P. but had barely touched the Lower Peninsula, “you guys would have burned the bridge down already,” and would not have let what was happening Up North impede the economy of the rest of the state.

Metro Detroit has borne the brunt of the virus, with Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties reporting 30,247 confirmed cases and 3,254 deaths as of Saturday, according to state figures.

But others are pressing for a more cooperative approach. Travel Michigan, which promotes travel and tourism with things like the "Pure Michigan" commercials, launched a campaign aimed at unity.

"We want to remind people that no one is in this alone — we are all one Pure Michigan,” said Dave Lorenz, the group's vice president. “The 'Pure Michigan' campaign has served as a unifying force during other hard times, and through our 'Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan' message, we hope to instill the value of staying united at a time when it is needed most.”

[More: For those who market Detroit and Michigan, it's 'dream now and visit later']

Short season

Michigan's tourism industry has a short season to make the bulk of its money, but people who run it are trying to balance economic health and public health.

"I've got a lot of very eager members, hoteliers, restaurateurs, bar owners, who'd like to see some normalcy, they'd like to get back to business," said Trevor Tkach, president of Traverse City Tourism. "For us, that means welcoming guests, maybe in a different fashion than we have in the past. Right now we're going to have to do business differently."

Traverse City is in Grand Traverse County, which has logged 19 coronavirus cases and five deaths as of Saturday, according to state figures. Tkach said businesses can adapt.

"They're ready to do business, they're willing to follow whatever safety precautions, whatever hygiene measures the state sees fit," he said. "They're ready to follow those guidelines and prepare a safe environment to take guests."

Jones draws a military pension and has owned his cottages for years. He said he's better positioned to weather a bad season than business owners who might have a mortgage on their properties. Still, he worries about them.

"If we do not have tourists here starting in June, there are a whole bunch of places going to not make it through the winter," he said. "We literally have 90 days for a huge number of businesses to make their money."

Jones lives in Benzie County, which has logged just six coronavirus cases and no deaths.

Jones said he plans to buy an electrostatic disinfection sprayer that can be used on soft surfaces like beds and furniture as well as hard surfaces. They cost about $1,000, but he said it's worth the investment to reassure guests.

"Between 45% to 60% of my guests repeat every year," he said. "I'm getting phone calls from them saying they can't wait. They just want to get up here."

That worries some Up North locals. Hillary Way lives in Boyne City, in Charlevoix County, which has logged 13 coronavirus cases and one death.

"I think things could spike if we open too much, too soon," she said. "There are so many people who are out and about going on with daily lives without wearing masks. I think a push for local businesses to open and for locals-only for shopping and getting back to normal is fine, but all the local economies up here are tourism-based and if people downstate catch wind of us being open, even more will migrate Up North and they will bring COVID with them and it could really hit hard."

Employee safety

Treetops Resort in Gaylord opened one of its courses, the Tradition, on Friday. The course is the flattest of the five courses on the property and therefore the most conducive to walking. Whitmer's order allows golf now, but not golf carts, which put two players elbow-to-elbow as they ride. In a typical year, 99% of rounds played at Tree Tops are played with carts, said assistant general manager Kevin McKinley.

"We've sort of reinvented our mojo," McKinley said.

Gaylord is in Otsego County, which has reported 92 coronavirus cases and eight deaths.

McKinley said he expects limited business in the near term because the governor's orders don't yet allow leisure travel. Most Treetops players come from other parts of Michigan, or from other states, and spend the night. The open course should attract some locals who live within driving distance, but not a lot more.

That's OK with McKinley. While he's eager to see things return to normal, he also has safety concerns.

"We have 400 employees to think about and to keep safe, and those 400 employees have family members and friends that they potentially will be in contact with throughout the community," McKinley said. "So we're just waiting for the legal go ahead, but also making sure that our protocols are in place so that we're keeping not only our guests safe, but maybe even more importantly, our staff's."

Some businesses have been scrutinizing Whitmer's executive orders in search of loopholes that would allow them to operate more freely, but Treetops plans a nuanced marketing pitch that encourages people to come when they feel safe, McKinley said.


Safety concerns extend to small businesses as well.

At A Night to Remember bed and breakfast in Lexington, Maliniak and her husband basically are the employees. They book the guests, clean the rooms, cook the breakfasts, and do everything else needed to keep their business open. Maliniak said she has concerns about both her guests and her family.

"Even though I clean so good anyways, I'm always concerned, what more should I do?" Maliniak said. "And with people coming, where are they coming from? Where have they been? Have they been social distancing?"

Lexington is in Sanilac County, which had reported 36 coronavirus cases and five deaths as of Saturday, according to state figures.

Maliniak said her husband has health difficulties and she's kept him quarantined for almost two months to avoid potential exposure.

In addition to the bed and breakfast, Maliniak also operates a small ice cream parlor on the property that draws foot traffic from Lexington's downtown area, including its harbor. The space inside is tiny and she doesn't want people congregating there while the virus threat looms.

She's trying to find a way to balance her safety concerns and her need for business.

"I did not have a walk-up window but I have ordered a (sliding) window to put in there, so I possibly could do walk-up service there," she said.

Mark Hume runs the Oscoda Canoe Rental on the Au Sable River in Oscoda. Guests park on his property near Lake Huron and he buses them to spots upstream where they put in canoes and kayaks to paddle back down. That business typically starts in earnest in June and he thinks it can be done safely with proper precautions.

"I'm from downstate and as long as they social distance up here, I think it was crazy to tell people, they can't come up to their place Up North," he said. "Just do the whole social distancing thing and don't worry about it."

Oscoda is in Iosco County, which had logged 52 coronavirus cases and seven deaths as of Saturday.

Kathy Jacobs, 27, lives in Montmorency County, in the northeastern part of the Lower Peninsula. She agrees. Her county has logged five cases and no deaths. She normally works as a waitress at a small diner but she didn't work at all in April.

“I don’t see why we can’t be open. There really aren’t cases up here," she said. "There aren’t a ton of people up here. I think Detroit needs to be closed down and around it — it’s bad there, it seems — but I just don’t see it here. There’s just not a huge risk here and we can all stay safe. It’s not like we’re all working in some plant or something. We’re spread out. We’re good.”

Opposed to regions

Even in the Upper Peninsula, there's no consensus on what to do. While McBroom wants things open in western U.P., things are different at the eastern end.

Bryan Newland is the chair of the executive council of the Bay Mills Indian Community, which runs a casino just west of Sault Ste. Marie. The casino is in Chippewa County, which has logged two coronavirus cases and no deaths.

As a sovereign nation, the community is not bound by Whitmer’s orders. Still, Bay Mills went into lockdown until the end of June and has a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. It also is instituting random testing to track illness. As of Wednesday, it had no confirmed cases.

The shutdown has devastated the casino, which just signed papers for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. The tribe counts on downstate visitors who stay in the RV park, and gamble and eat at the casino. There’s also a lot of folks with cottages and camps. Newland has seen license plates from Indiana, Ohio, and car dealer decals from metro Detroit already up there.

“You can’t wall off these regions,” he said. “I think the rules have to be across the board. If we are open up here, what’s to stop people from coming here from a place that is closed?"

He notes that Sault Ste. Marie has only a couple of places to shop for groceries — a Meijer and Walmart. People mix there all the time.

“This notion of dividing the state into regions just creates incentives for people to go to regions that are open.”

Jesse Metz lives in Arenac County on the northwest side of the Saginaw Bay, which has logged 24 coronavirus cases and one death. Metz lost his job because of the shutdown but he's opposed to opening different regions.

“I would really err on the side of caution," he said "It’s really tempting to open up the rural areas like here, especially as summer comes and everyone wants to do their normal travels Up North. We’ve made progress as a state and I really worry about that all being for naught. It’s a little frustrating to see the lack of patience. I would hope we could ride it out."

Metz said he worries an outbreak near him would overwhelm the local health care system. He wants to see how other places like Georgia fare, before moving ahead with reopening Michigan.

"We can’t afford to throw away all the progress we have made in mitigating this virus over the last month by rushing a return to normal, no matter how appealing that might sound," he said.

Farmers hurting

Agriculture has been deemed critical since the beginning of the crisis so it's been allowed to operate as best it can. But that hasn't spared farmers from the economic hit the crisis has brought, said Matt Smego, manager of government relations for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

"I would say the impact to the farmer of late has been staggering," Smego said. "We've seen substantial reductions in prices in farm gate value of products that they sell."

Smego said that before the COVID crisis, Michigan farmers sold about 51% of the food they produce to commercial meal providers like restaurants, dormitories, and school cafeterias. With all of those now closed, that market has shifted to where consumers buy food: grocery stores.

But the supply chain isn't set up to push 100% of the food through that channel, Smego said. Food is packaged differently for commercial use than it is for retail consumers. Think 5-gallon buckets instead of 12-ounce containers.

"We've got plenty of food in this country, it's just a matter of getting it through the current process," Smego said. "The supply chain that we have today really wasn't built for this kind of stress, of that much product needing to go to a grocery shelf."

Farmers are trying to adapt and don't want to be left behind. Mike Fusilier owns a farm west of Ann Arbor and his two sons own farms near him. He grows flowers as well as produce and a small amount of fruit. Washtenaw County has logged almost 1,100 cases and 61 deaths from COVID-19.

Greenhouses had been closed until Whitmer relaxed restrictions on them April 24. Fusilier opened his two days later, not knowing whether customers would be comfortable shopping.

"We were swamped," he said. "We were worried that people weren't going to come out, we just didn't know."

Fusilier wants to be open because springtime is crucial in the flower business. He doesn't want to be left behind because he's located in Washtenaw County.

He said he's tried to be creative in dealing with the shutdown. His sons have developed a produce delivery service to homes in the area, which is now booming. He's taking other precautions in his greenhouse store, like social distancing, to ensure safety.

"I think we've done a good job at our stores with the face masks and we use gloves if we need to," he said. "I think there's a lot of businesses, they could probably do something similar to that."

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