I live in the Michigan that’s grateful to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) for the science-based restrictions she’s been imposing to keep us safe since March 2020. Residents of the other Michigan — against their own health and best interests — have been putting up a vicious fight against coronavirus safety protocols since the beginning. That resistance has been especially feverish and tinged with sexism. There are nasty memes and recall petitions, along with gendered nicknames like schoolmarm and witch, painting Whitmer as unnecessarily controlling. Some men were charged with plotting to kidnap her, apparently in response to her safety orders. It’s hard to forget the scene in Lansing, where hundreds of unmasked people with long guns occupied the Capitol, demonstrating for their God-given right to contract and spread a deadly virus — gross on its own and prescient given what happened at the U.S. Capitol in January.
For most of the past year, I had little faith that the two Michigans could ever reconcile the different ways we’ve understood this pandemic. Last summer, rural sheriffs vowed not to uphold Whitmer’s orders. In August, on a trip north to one of those spectacular beaches, I visited a highway rest stop where few people wore masks and there were no signs indicating visitors should do so. I was uncomfortable enough with the lack of signs to write to the Michigan Department of Transportation, whose representative told me the agency posts freshly printed signs every morning that are summarily ripped down before afternoon.
Even in the face of the pandemic’s ferocious toll, few seem moved to reconsider. In what felt like the consequences of misplaced rebellion, cases and deaths here spiked wildly beginning in October, just after the Michigan Supreme Court stripped the governor’s executive powers to issue emergency orders, the infrastructure that had been keeping masks on and big crowds prohibited. Later in October, I put on a mask and joined one of those recently permitted crowds at a 15,000-person rally for President Donald Trump in Muskegon, hoping to better understand how our thinking became this divided. I came away with no greater grasp of that concept, having met a number of QAnon fans who told me they don’t believe the virus is real.
But the virus still menaced both Michigans. Our state’s urban center, Detroit, was one of the nation’s deadliest hot spots at the beginning, and we’ve followed that with several surges, including a terrifying one this April in which daily case counts hovered at their apex. More than a year into this and after vaccination became widely accessible, how could we plunge into chaos with an alarming number of younger patients maxing out Michigan hospitals?
At times, I have felt frustrated and disoriented living in my version of Michigan, and I know the feeling is mutual. Can’t we just make some temporary sacrifices? I’d think. Not if the economy collapses, they might counter. Or, My kids are suffering academically and socially without in-person school and sports. We have to bring things back to normal. There are important dimensions to the other Michigan’s argument. I’ve felt them in my own household — our isolation, our own health and economic fears, the bewildering idea of my daughter attending middle school from a laptop, the at-once manic and somnambulistic cycle of working and sleeping all within the same walls, always online.
An empathetic lens is our best hope in most situations, but I’ve felt pessimistic about how Michigan will come through this. If we had a shared goal — eradicating the virus — I’d feel more confident. But like our national political divide, the two Michigans have different visions of the future, and at least two different sets of facts to guide them.
Yet, for the first time since last summer, Michigan is looking at three-digit daily case numbers in June. It was over 10,000 just six weeks ago. Restrictions are lifting. In May, both my child’s school and my favorite bookstore opened their doors for the first time in 14 months. I experienced both as celestial miracles. I even attended a small outdoor party last week and luxuriated in the nearly forgotten feeling of exhaustion after standing (wearing shoes) for three hours and speaking to other adults.
Arriving home in my delirium from socializing, I put my feet up and began to wonder if Michigan had actually done what previously seemed impossible. Are things beginning to return to normal here because we’ve all hunkered down and made personal choices for the greater good? Is this simply a reflection of the vaccine kicking in for some of us? Or worse, is this feeling of safety and freedom exclusive to the Michigan I’m inhabiting, where we’re complying with orders, getting our shots and aiming for herd immunity?
It's difficult to know how we would begin answering those questions, but once a week I look at my husband and ask a different one: “Is this over yet?” Over is a relative term, and I guess I’ve learned to be satisfied enough with slowly inching our way toward normal. Which we are.
The most challenging part for him to try to answer is defining “this.” I’ve been looking for an end to our always-at-home lifestyle, an end to the fear and uncertainty of daily covid-19 life. Against all odds, Michigan is in a strong place now, and our declining cases and deaths are heartening. Our public health and our economy may just survive, thanks to the governor, to vaccines, to health-care workers and all the immense sacrifices made this last year.
But there’s another “this” that isn’t over ——the deep divide about how we see the world in my version of Michigan and in its counterpart. The klaxon for that emergency has been sounding more loudly than ever before. Now that the threat of the virus is diminishing, it’s time to heed that warning with the discipline and resolve we’ve proven we have.
No matter how we arrived at this surreal moment when I can browse a bookstore in person and laugh around a firepit with my friends, the chasm dividing Michiganders is still firmly in place. At a salon for a desperately needed haircut last week I heard reports from the other Michigan — about the dangers of vaccination and a few ugly opinions about Whitmer — and tried to imagine myself on the opposite side of this gulf. That might be all we can do: Call across the fissure and try our best to understand and respect what’s on the other side.