ANALYSIS

The (fear of) coronavirus has ended in Mid-Michigan

Greater Lansing adjusts to a new normal as COVID-19 cases decline

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As pandemic-related restrictions continue to be relaxed and more businesses reopen here this summer, residents and entrepreneurs are itching for normalcy.

And if it weren’t for the masks, one might easily forget the virus still poses a threat in Michigan.

Bars and restaurants that have been closed for months are flinging open their dining room doors. More and more retailers, including big box giants and smaller boutique shops, are restarting their operations across Lansing. And customers are certainly supplying the demand.

Several dozen strolled Meridian Mall last week. Lines formed outside some shops. The Frandor parking lot (and the traffic to go with it) is back to causing headaches. Local restaurants, with expanded outdoor dining, are regaining customers.

But does this mean the pandemic is subsiding? Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail understands how people can get that impression. Residents, however, should think twice before throwing caution to the wind, she warned.

“It’s a mix. Some people are being incredibly diligent, following all of these guidelines and even denying entry to customers without masks,” Vail added. “Others are not. At this point, it’s really incumbent on businesses to stay vigilant and for people to take some personal responsibility.”

Case in point: At Harper’s in East Lansing, at least 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been tied to customers who visited the bar since it reopened, Vail announced Tuesday. It remained closed this week while staff ramps up sanitation protocols and to make adjustments to its social distancing procedures.

“I wouldn’t call it a second wave. It’s just a leaky spot in getting this under control,” Vail said, noting that businesses have a responsibility to enforce social distancing measures and masks. She urged anyone with symptoms or concerns who visited Harper’s between June 12 and 20 to be tested.

Ingham County tracked just one remaining hospitalized patient with the coronavirus this week. At least 450 residents have fully recovered since March. About 350 more are recovering at home and still being monitored by health officials.

The percentage of positive tests tracked locally has also diminished in recent weeks, falling from more than 20% of those tested in April to less than 3% a day in June. The coronavirus case curve, at least locally and across the rest of Michigan, appears to be a sustained flatline.

And along with fewer cases, the fear of coronavirus also appears to be fading locally. But Vail warned that a newfound sense of carelessness could pose problems over the coming weeks.

Revised modeling from the University of Washington predicts that Michigan will see the fourth most COVID-19 deaths nationally this fall from a potential second wave of infections, reports The Detroit News. Vail is also tracking a small uptick of confirmed cases in Lansing over recent days. It’s not enough to sound the second wave alarm just yet, but Vail isn’t ruling out the possibility.

“We’re seeing a low-level rumbling of activity that could possibly be due to reopening some of these places, especially with more people getting out of the house,” Vail said. “Wearing masks might be the most effective and practical tool in preventing a significant second wave. We might see an uptick in cases, but wearing masks could be the key to avoiding another big shutdown.”

This month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted her stay-at-home order to allow residents to travel anywhere in the state and gather in groups of up to 100 people outdoors — provided they maintain a 6-foot distance from people outside of their immediate household.

Retail stores could also reopen earlier this month, though with limited capacity and enhanced sanitation protocols. Bars and restaurants can also open at half capacity. Swimming pools and day camps for children are in the process of reopening, as well as most museums and libraries.

According to Bridge Magazine, only a handful of business types remain closed in Michigan, including gyms, hair salons, indoor theaters, casinos and similar establishments that “involve close contact and shared surfaces” that could again allow the virus to spread to other patrons.

And just about every local business is either asking or demanding masks be worn inside. Under Whitmer’s orders, all customers and employees are encouraged to wear them. Staff that work in close proximity with people, like checkout personnel, are required to keep their faces covered.

Nothing in the orders, however, provides for any criminal penalties for those who fail to follow the rules, though businesses are free to deny service to maskless customers. Vail said standard restaurant and bar licensing inspections are the only routine tool to ensure rules stay enforced.

And while individual complaints are investigated, personal responsibility plays a big role.

“I’m comfortable with the guidelines we have in place,” Vail said. “At some point in time, we had to reopen, so we’re doing so cautiously and incrementally. As soon as people stop paying attention to these rules, then we’ll have some more issues, but I’m guessing that if governors and health officials see the need to close things down again, they won’t hesitate.”

Most customers and staff at local stores seem to have allowed masks and face coverings to fully assimilate into the mainstream. Signs and floor markings still routinely warn shoppers to keep their distance. Some businesses have gone as far as to refuse entry to their maskless clientele.

A clerk at the Rite Aid on Cedar Street was spotted asking a group without masks to leave. Other places — like Horrock’s, Target, Meijer and Walmart — seem to rely more on signage.

Shoppers themselves have made masks a habit, if only for appearances, but the 6-foot social distancing circle appears to be shrinking. Crowded stores are making it more difficult to avoid bumping into others. Alcohol flowing from reopened bars is also causing recklessness.

Bartenders at Stober’s were doing their best last week to check temperatures, but some guests invariably missed the initial screening process. Moriarty’s Pub requires masks to be worn inside, but guests often forgot to put them back on to walk past the kitchen and toward the bathrooms.

Outdoor seating has been expanded at dozens of bars and restaurants, but those can quickly become crowded as well. Patrons at Lansing Brewing Co., for example, were offered a mask upon entry but still needed to walk within six feet of other full tables to find their seats. (Lansing Brewing closed voluntarily for several days to disinfect after it learned someone who tested positive had entered the building.)

East Lansing closed a section of Albert Avenue for more outdoor dining at places like HopCat.

Some restaurants are also growing impatient with the rules. Asian Buffet in Okemos keeps guests at least six feet from other tables, but it reopened its buffet despite Whitmer’s latest orders that still clearly prohibit restaurants from again allowing self-service dining inside.

Vail said that buffets shouldn’t be allowing patrons to fix their own plates, largely because of the contagion risk posed by shared utensils and other commonly touched surfaces. Staff there ignored questions from City Pulse about their dining policies and hung up the phone twice.

Other troubling experiences locally have been at convenience stores and gas stations, where staff almost always wear masks but guests — often in a rush to grab lotto tickets or cigarettes — routinely failed to consider the safety of others and forgetfully headed inside without masks on.

An initial springtime anxiety tied to COVID-19’s arrival, where streets were empty and residents were considerate of others’ space, seems to have been only a fleeting moment in Greater Lansing, as many stores become crowded and social distancing takes a backseat to freedom.

Many seem to have adopted a more carefree mentality as the COVID-19 curve flattens locally. Many shoppers and staff wore masks, but some kept them below their noses and chins. Others skipped them altogether and were growing impatient with the continued call to keep socially distant.

Friends and family members were also gradually readjusting to larger social gatherings. Backyard barbecues have returned. Elbow bumps, after a few months off, seem to be back in local style.

According to recent reports from MLive, epidemiologists have reached a consensus that Michigan is all but assured to experience a second wave of COVID-19 infections this year. The severity of another surge, however, depends on how people behave as the state reopens.

And with nationally renowned epidemiologists — including the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — expecting an increase in cases during the fall and winter months, a failure to take precautions could pose problems, Vail emphasized.

She urgeed residents to cautiously enjoy their newfound freedoms to socialize and shop but continue to stay vigilant, wash hands, wear masks and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

“It’s really unfortunate that there was so much conflicting information early on about whether or not to wear a mask, because that has contributed to the confusion,” Vail said. “Now, we know masks are extremely effective at preventing the spread. If even 70% of us can remember to consistently wear a mask, that could go a long way in keeping this under control later this year.”

(Staff writers Cole Tunningley and Skyler Ashley contributed to this observational analysis.)

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