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One year into the COVID pandemic, here's how Michiganders are doing

illustration of COVID-19 related things
Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio

March 10 marks one year since Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan. Following that announcement, executive orders were issued that temporarily closed schools and restaurants, and limited gatherings. Michiganders began planning to stay inside in order to “flatten the curve” for at least two weeks.

But as the number of cases grew and hospitals became filled, it became clear that it would be a long while before things would feel like normal again.

And now, here we are, one year later.

It’s safe to say that everyone experienced the effects of the pandemic. So, we wanted to know: How has COVID changed your life this year? What’s the worst thing the pandemic has brought - and what’s the best thing?

[Want to add your voice to the story? Find out how to share it via voicemail or email.]

Michigan Radio reporters Beenish Ahmed and Dustin Dwyer spoke with residents in Detroit and Grand Rapids to find out how the last year has been for them. You’ll hear Helen Hill, Mekhi Lowri, Alycia McKeller, Rasha Thomas, Deborah Young, Emily Nickels, Briana Baldwin, and Penny Irvin in the audio above (and in quotes below). We also reached out to our listeners online and across our various social channels to hear what the good and bad has been since that announcement came one year ago.

For many, the change from turning homes into classrooms and offices was a big adjustment - one with clear benefits, but also disadvantages. For others, work became non-existent as salons were forced to close, weddings were put on hold, and capacity limits were put on certain businesses.

Voicemail from Meghan Murray
Voicemail from Meghan Murray

"The pandemic has obviously changed my life in a lot of ways. Mainly, just being the switch from no school in March to summer vacation to weird online mixed with in-person school," said Meghan Murray from Birmingham. "And the next couple weeks I'll be going to school four days a week. But, it's just so different I can't even imagine it being anywhere else anymore."

The pandemic dealt a major blow to people’s livelihoods: In April 2020, Michigan saw an unemployment rate of 24% — much higher than the worst month of the Great Recession, which was 14.6% in June 2009.

“I mean, my work was extremely affected,” Emily Nickels said. “I'm a hairstylist, so we were obviously shut down for a couple of months and my salon is really big on weddings and weddings have completely changed this year. So that's definitely been a negative attribute.”

"I am a professional stage actor and singer. I also work as an actor in the film industry. I had big plans for 2020,” Tom Emmott wrote to us via email. “I was on the verge of putting together a new audition video for stage work when it was announced that the virus was in our country. I had rented a small space to shoot the stage video and on the eve of shooting, I was told the venue would not be available due to the virus. So here I am. One year later. Performing to an audience of one. Me. I lost a career. On the other hand, I lost one of my dearest friends who died from the virus in a hospital last month."

With the pandemic came isolation and burnout. And on top of those feelings, the summer brought social protests and reckoning that both inspired and played on the mental health of many.

Jim Betz is a lieutenant with the Grand Rapids Fire Department. He wrote to us via email.

“This year has been challenging both personally and professionally. The combined opioid epidemic, a pandemic, all the civil unrest from last summer, and the local increase in violent crime, it has had the effect of extreme burnout,” Betz wrote. “Not taking the negative home to a family that has been dealing with school and work changes has been difficult.”

Restrictions on household gatherings meant that many people had to adjust to being alone for long periods of time. While video chatting helped bring people together, it wasn’t the same as experiencing the physical closeness of being in the same room as someone else.

Voicemail from Anya Letson
Voicemail from Anya Letson

“The pandemic has changed my life because I live by myself. So all of those multi-household restrictions mean I've really just been alone for like the past year, maybe 90% of the time,” Anya Letson of Battle Creek said. “So, like a lot of other people, I'm just kind of learning how to sit with myself.”

Another way people felt alone? Restrictions also impacted visitation for those needing medical care.

“I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer during the pandemic,” Julie Martin of Chelsea wrote to us via email. “The worst thing about it is being alone for doctor's appointments and chemotherapy treatments. COVID has added another layer of isolation to an already difficult situation. Thank goodness for Zoom therapy and online support groups.”

The pandemic helped put things into perspective. Being forced to change pace and slow down helped Alycia McKeller realize what was important in life.

“I feel like I appreciate the relationships I have in my life a lot more because I was so like, go, go, go all the time and focused on my career that I don't really take a second to just, you know, hang out and live in the moment,” she said. “And that's kind of what COVID forced me to do. So I appreciate it in that way.”

The same was true for Rick Mathis and his family.

“It's brought our family closer and allowed us to appreciate the little things in life,” he wrote to us on Facebook. “We thoroughly enjoy a meal together in our car in a random parking lot with a few trees in it (for ambience), and playing cards or dominoes together. Our daughters (10 & 12) have found joy in the small things like playing basketball at the park and going on hikes. While we've found time together to be a blessing, we still pray for those who have lost loved ones and been affected by COVID. We know that we are not the rule, but the exception to the rule.”

The pandemic also forced us to think differently about our intimate relationships.

a woman wearing a mask standing in front of a car in a parking lot
Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Penny Irvin

“I'm married. So it's like date night is different now,” Briana Baldwin said. “So, you know, coming up with different ways to be home but still keep your loved one in mind, or keep your partner, or your husband or wife in mind.”

“Don't divorce your husband during the pandemic!” Penny Irvin advised.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 16,000 Michiganders have lost their lives to COVID-19. 

"Hopefully this will open up a lot of people's eyes, you know. Like don't take life for granted because you be here today and gone tomorrow," Rasha Thomas said. "You know, I lost quite a few people from this pandemic -- frat brothers, you know, sorority sisters and all that. Even church members, you know, yeah."

a man wearing a mask standing in front of trees
Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Rasha Thomas

"And I mean, if I stop and think about it: The people that I lost. But you can't hold on to that because it's too much, you're overwhelmed. So many people, I just can't even believe it," Irvin said. "But you can't hold on to them because first it was just so painful. See, that's another thing. I was just crying all the time. But you just have somebody that's just up and vital and active, then have them just disappear. That is a hard pill. That's a hard pill to swallow. And I don't know how long it can possibly take you to get past that."

The realization of how many people have been lost also helped bring what was often some much-needed perspective.

"I'm very grateful to still be here with all the lives taken. And it's just very sad," Mekhi Lowri said. "But I'm still, I'm grateful to be here."

We want to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at (734) 408-1753 or email us at digital@michiganradio.org to share your COVID-19 story.

There are five important things to include in your message:

  1. Your name
  2. The city you live in
  3. How has COVID changed your life this year?
  4. What's the worst thing the pandemic has brought?
  5. What's the best thing?

More details

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
Jodi is Michigan Public's Director of Digital Audiences, leading and developing the station’s overall digital strategy.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.
Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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