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In Michigan, political divides create two pandemic realities

DETROIT — Measia Dove chooses to wear a mask whenever she leaves her house, which isn’t often. The coronavirus pandemic has reduced life to a “Law & Order” marathon and occasional trips to the grocery store.

Dove, a retired nursing assistant, does not think she’s had COVID-19 yet. But she is 63 years old and has asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure, all of which put her at greater risk if she’s infected. So Dove heeds the advice of public health officials and follows her state’s social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.

“I trust Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. I trust the governor,” Dove said in a recent interview at her home in Detroit, referring to Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Dove, who is Black and a lifelong Democrat, has zero faith in President Donald Trump. “I don’t trust anything the president says.”

On the opposite side of the state, in rural West Michigan, Diane Devereaux’s pandemic reality could not be more different. Devereaux, who is white and a Republican, is skeptical of the official data on the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. She does not trust her governor, and refused to wear a mask until Whitmer issued an executive order in mid-July requiring that they be worn in public.

“I don’t like having a nanny state governor,” said Devereaux, who works in sales and runs a side business out of her home focused on food sustainability. She was seated under an umbrella on her back porch in late July, surrounded by pots planted with Roma tomatoes, green peppers and other vegetables, farms dotting the hillside beyond her lawn. “I’ve had friends over for a bonfire. I celebrated the Fourth of July. I’m living my life,” she said.

As the coronavirus continues spreading across the state — and the rest of the country — public attitudes about the pandemic have become increasingly polarized. Two realities of the virus have emerged — one where people believe masks, social distancing and shuttered businesses are still necessary, and one where such precautions are seen as overblown, misrepresented by health experts and the media.

The debate often returns to face masks, one of the most prominent symbols of a pandemic that has laid bare longstanding racial and class disparities in the United States.

Graphic by CY Park / PBS NewsHour

Polls show a growing link between Americans’ political beliefs and personal health decisions. A Gallup poll from early July found that 61 percent of Democrats said they always wore a face mask in public, compared to just 24 percent of Republicans — a partisan gap that has steadily widened since March. Those divisions exist along racial lines, too. A June study by Pew found that 62 percent of white Americans said they wore a mask in stores or other businesses all or most of the time in the past month, compared to 69 percent of Black Americans, 74 percent of Hispanics and 80 percent of Asian Americans.

These political, racial and geographical divides were on sharp display during a reporting trip in Michigan in late July, one week after Whitmer signed her executive order. Mask use and social distancing varied widely. Interviews with residents across the state — white and nonwhite, liberal and conservative — illuminated a clear divide on how people viewed the unfolding public health crisis.

The pandemic “has become a culture war issue,” said Adam London, the public health director for Kent County, a rural, predominantly white area that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. The political debate has real public health consequences, he added. Curbing the spread of the virus is “really up to the community and individual actions,” London said, but public health officials have a very difficult challenge convincing people” to take the necessary precautions when there’s widespread disagreement on the facts.

“There’s so much confusion for everybody, and confusion creates distrust,” said Mandy Bolter, the Republican chair of the Kent County Board of Commissioners. “When opposing people are telling you different things, you’re going to pick a side.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Trump has given the public mixed signals on its severity and what approach the country should be taking, at times contradicting health officials and state leaders, including Democrats like Whitmer. He resisted wearing a mask and claimed the virus was under control until mid-July, when he reversed course and encouraged Americans to wear masks, and was seen doing so himself for the first time.

In announcing his support for face masks, Trump, whose reelection prospects hinge on winning battleground states like Michigan, warned that the coronavirus pandemic would likely “get worse before it gets better.”

From the start, Michigan was one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus. The state drew national attention in April when armed militia members protested Whitmer’s shutdown orders at the state capitol in Lansing. Whitmer’s early moves were among the most aggressive in the country, and helped move Michigan out of the top 10 states with the highest number of cases and deaths. (Michigan now ranks ninth in total deaths and 14th in cases). But as with other states that have struggled with containing the virus since reopening, Michigan has seen a resurgence in cases since Whitmer started a phased reopening in May; more than half of its 80,000-plus confirmed coronavirus cases have come since then.

Some of the biggest spikes have taken place in Wayne County, home to Detroit, and Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids and conservative rural communities like Devereaux’s hometown of Lowell.

On the surface the data seems to tell different stories in both places, underscoring why residents less than 200 miles apart may feel they have little in common. Kent County, which is 82 percent white, has roughly half the number of cases per 100,000 people than Detroit, which is 78 percent Black, and a lower mortality rate thanks to early and widespread testing.

But both areas are now hotspots for the spread of the virus, and while residents in Detroit and the Grand Rapids region have access to the same public health information from federal and state officials, interviews revealed wildly divergent views of the crisis.

Watching people around her get sick and die from COVID-19 left no doubt in Felicia Steward’s mind that the virus was real. Steward wears a face mask on the job as a mail sorter in Detroit. “I’ve gone to a lot of funerals. Zoom memorials. You see someone, and then the next thing you know, they’re gone,” she said.

Jason Peterson, a white Trump supporter who works in Kent County and does not trust the government’s coronavirus statistics, said the virus was no worse than a bad flu, though research suggests COVID-19 is much deadlier. It’s hard for him to reconcile what he sees on the news about the pandemic devastating communities of color in Detroit with his own reality, Peterson added.

“Detroit is totally different,” he said. “It’s like we have two different worlds in the same state.”

People are not taking it seriously’

Dove has her stay-at-home routine down. She wakes up between eight and nine o’clock every morning in her one-bedroom apartment and follows a 30-minute exercise routine on YouTube. Then she spends most of the day watching television on a beige couch in her living room, a ceiling fan whirring overhead. Dove might venture out to the supermarket, the pharmacy or the laundromat, always wearing a mask, but doesn’t do much else. In late July, she was preparing to go see family in North Carolina, her first big trip during the pandemic.

Measia Dove of Detroit is photographed inside her home on the city’s northwest side on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Dove spends her days following YouTube fitness videos, walking with friends at a nearby high school track, grocery shopping and watching “Law & Order”. “I’m not big on company,” Dove said. Photo by Emily Rose Bennett for PBS NewsHour.

For the most part, “I just putter around at home, try and keep my house somewhat clean,” Dove said. “As long as I have food, and TV, and my phone, I’m good.” But while she has adjusted to pandemic life, Dove said she’s worried that too many others are going about their lives as usual, including some in her own neighborhood in northwest Detroit.

“Sometimes I watch the news and I get depressed. People are not taking it seriously,” she said. Dove gets especially frustrated when Republicans criticize Democratic-led cities with diverse populations like Detroit for not getting the virus under control, while overlooking other parts of the country where many white people don’t seem to be wearing a mask or following social distancing guidelines. “It’s promoting racism. When they use words like ‘urban,’ you’re not trying to bring us together.”

Dove isn’t alone. Numerous Detroiters said they felt a sense of individual responsibility to follow the rules, and didn’t understand why anyone would flout public health recommendations. “I feel it’s the right thing to do, not only for myself but for others. It’s a community situation. It’s not right to be selfish,” said Charlotte Watson, a retired health care worker, who lives in Detroit.

When Jacquelynne Jordan, a Black 66-year-old retired corrections officer, got sick at the end of March, testing for coronavirus still wasn’t readily available in Detroit. She requested a test but was turned down by a doctor’s office despite her age and history with diabetes and high blood pressure, her son Jamon Jordan said. “They told her, ‘We think you have coronavirus, you don’t need to get a test, self-quarantine for 14 days,’” he said. Jordan had gotten a similar response at a hospital weeks earlier, after trying to get tested himself while presenting with all the major COVID-19 symptoms.

Less than one week later, as she was deciding how to proceed, Jordan said his mother started feeling so sick that she called an ambulance. She was taken to a hospital and died within hours of complications from COVID-19.

“Had she been white, and had diabetes and high blood pressure, I think that would have been treated as an emergency,” said Jordan, an educator who conducts Black history tours in Detroit. “That’s the racism in the health care system. When Black people present with those symptoms, it’s not treated as seriously.”

Data shows a wide disparity in COVID-19 health outcomes by race: Black people in the U.S. are more likely to be in essential jobs in public transit, food service and other industries, and are 2.5 times more likely to die from the virus than white people.

Graphic by CY Park / PBS NewsHour

Racial bias in health care has been well documented, in particular the differences in how pain is assessed and diagnosed between Black and white Americans. As one widely read 2016 study published by the National Academy of Sciences noted, “Black Americans are systematically undertreated for pain relative to white Americans.” There have also been calls for the government to do more about the virus’ disproportionate impact on people of color, starting with better racial data and broader access to testing.

Jordan is deeply disappointed with the federal government’s response to the pandemic, but he said he doesn’t blame Trump for his mother’s death. Still, Jordan said he was concerned that the president’s dismissal of the coronavirus threat early on, and his criticism of his own public health advisers, set a dangerous example for millions of Americans.

“The whole Trump message is critical of institutions. Being an expert means you’re part of a conspiracy,” Jordan said. “What Trump says drives what his supporters do and what they think, not the medical professionals.”

‘Gaming COVID for political expediency’

In July, one day before the statewide mask mandate went into effect, Devereaux headed to the Meijer supermarket store in Lowell, some 134 miles west of Jordan’s brick home in the Bagley section of Detroit. That Saturday evening, the store already had signs posted outside asking customers to cover their faces inside. As Devereaux walked up to an entrance without a mask, a security guard yelled at her not to go in. She ignored him and went ahead with her shopping, but she said the exchange left her feeling rattled.

“I’m 43 years old. For the first time in life, I’m in the store and feeling afraid of what’s going to happen to me,” she recalled. “I was cowering in the international food aisle, saying, ‘Holy shit, are they going to drag me out of here?’”

No one did, but Devereaux said she has since bought a face covering for the grocery store, to avoid getting hassled. She remains opposed to the government dictating her behavior, and resents that some may view her refusal to abide by the rules as a sign that she does not care about the lives of others, especially Black people in hard-hit cities like Detroit. “Frankly, I think race should be left out of it,” she said. “When you’re sick, it doesn’t pick your race. You get sick.”

Devereaux added that she does not believe the pandemic is as severe as the media and public health officials claim. “I’ve been to hospitals and they’re not overwhelmed. People aren’t dropping dead on the streets. I don’t know a single person who has died of COVID. Not one.”

Left to right: Musicians perform with masks as a young couple celebrates their wedding in downtown Detroit on Friday, July 24, 2020. Drivers tests their vehicles on the drag strip during a test and tune evening at the US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Mich., on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Photos by Emily Rose Bennett for PBS NewsHour.

On a warm evening in late July in nearby Martin, Michigan, Peterson, the executive vice president of operations at US 131 Motorsports Park, echoed some of the feelings shared by Devereaux.

“I don’t think the coronavirus picks if it’s a Black person or Latino or white,” Peterson said during a break from working on his son’s Chevy S-10 in a parking lot behind the racetrack’s grandstand. The rear window of the truck was covered with a giant Trump 2020 sticker. Peterson said he did not believe the statistics showing Black and Latino Americans are almost two times more likely to die from the coronavirus than whites. He acknowledged that he rarely wears a mask, but said that decision wasn’t influenced by the president.

Tom Antor, a Republican commissioner in Kent County and vocal Trump supporter, said he has looked to the CDC for updates on the virus, but believes the official death count is being inflated. “By the time we get done with this virus, I guarantee you, and I’m not a doctor or a scientist, the death rate will be like the flu.”

The flu was responsible for an estimated 24,000 to 62,000 deaths in the U.S. in the roughly six-month period between Oct. 1, 2019 and April 4, 2020, according to the latest CDC figures. The coronavirus has killed more than 150,000 people since the first case was discovered a little more than six months ago, according to the CDC. A study by the University of Washington found that the mortality rate for COVID-19 was 1.3 percent, compared to 0.1 percent for the flu.

Antor thinks Michigan’s governor is “gaming covid for political expediency. She is blaming the president for everything that’s happening.” He added that he does not trust media coverage of the pandemic, and gave Fauci and Whitmer poor grades, while lavishing praise on Trump’s response. “I think he’s doing an incredible job.”

Antor said he was doing his part to help contain the virus, even though the state’s restrictions on large gatherings effectively shuttered his business, which puts on hunting trade shows. “It’s a simple thing to put a mask on. I don’t have a problem with that. But shutting down commerce, I just don’t see what the point is,” he said.

Annie Oesch-Link is seen among the hundreds of cows on her family’s dairy farm, Swisslane Farms in Alto, Mich., on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Oesch-Link manages the farm’s human resources and public relations needs. Photo by Emily Rose Bennett for PBS NewsHour

In the countryside surrounding Grand Rapids, farms have largely continued operating as essential businesses since the start of the public health crisis. But operations like Swisslane Farms, a dairy farm in Alto, haven’t escaped the effects of the pandemic.

The coronavirus “has impacted every part of our lives, whether it’s school, church, business, everything,” said Annie Oesch-Link, who helps run a dairy farm outside Grand Rapids that has been in her family for four generations. The farm asked employees to stay home if they felt sick, and some of its 53 workers have missed time on the job. Swisslane Farms also draws some of its income from farm tours, and visits are down this year.

The pandemic may be hitting home, but Oesch-Link said she tries to ignore the political debate around the coronavirus. When politicians offer conflicting advice and point blame at each other, “it’s really hard to trust anything,” she said. “And that’s really sad, actually.”