March 30, 2020 | Ypsilanti, Michigan
There’s an old trick in horror movies, a clichéd sequence that makes you squirm no matter how many times you’ve watched it unfold. It’s the one where everyone goes into hiding—underneath beds, inside garages—because a monster is stalking them. Inevitably, when the monster doesn’t appear right away, a few daring souls venture out from their sanctuaries to do something heroic, something that needs to be done, something you scream at them not to do. And that’s when the monster shows up. All you can do is watch through the slits of your fingers.
That’s the best way I can describe the feeling inside Sam’s Club last week.
On the day I visited the store—Wednesday, March 25—Michigan had the fifth-most cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, of any state in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the sixth-highest number of deaths. The overwhelming majority of these deaths were in Wayne County, which is home to Detroit and its immediate urban surroundings. This makes sense: The state’s biggest population center is also its most densely occupied space. Where I was, in adjacent Washtenaw County, the virus hadn’t invaded in the same catastrophic numbers. But it was only a matter of time before it migrated from cities to suburbs, suburbs to exurbs, exurbs to rural areas.
On Carpenter Road, a humming artery that runs north and south on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, the Sam’s Club in Ypsilanti is usually a circus. Parking is impossible to find within a football field of the entrance; dozens of cars snake around the adjacent gas station, often waiting half an hour for a turn at the discounted pumps. Visiting any time after 2 o’clock is a recipe for long lines and short fuses.
How strange it felt, then, to pull into the parking lot in the late afternoon and see just 20 or 25 cars; to walk inside the doors, past the glove-clad greeter and sanitizing station, and find nobody at the checkout lanes; to stroll down the once-bustling aisles, their shelves now barren, and encounter more employees than customers.
With much of the country under government directive to stay home, grocery stores offer some remnant of civic life to a suddenly isolated people. Yet there is no joy apparent in these fleeting moments of fellowship. Perhaps that’s because the most banal of activities, shopping, now seems daring and even defiant. Whatever the case, if their escape from the doldrums of residential confinement offered any relief, it sure didn’t show. The megastore patrons I met were on the edge, physically and psychologically, knowing the monster could appear at any moment.
I spent nearly three hours inside the Sam’s Club. From a respectful distance, I spoke with customers young and old, black and white, wealthy and working class. We talked about the coronavirus. We talked about their families. We talked about their jobs and their finances and their 401(k)s. No matter whom I encountered, no matter their politics or worldviews, the conversations were animated by a common sentiment: fear.
This wasn’t the fear you read about in front-page headlines or hear about on the evening news. None of us was on death’s door. None of us was being admitted to an over-capacity hospital. None of us was retracing routes of infection through dozens of family members and friends. Our fear was one step removed. We were waiting. We were—like the vast majority of Americans—reading those headlines, watching those newscasts, wondering when it might be our turn.
“I check every box. I’m in all the high-risk categories,” PETER MOLLOY told me. “I’m over 60. I’ve had pneumonia twice and it killed my lung capacity; I need oxygen every night before bed. I’ve got ARDS [Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome], which is part of the progression of this coronavirus. And I shattered my spleen in a skiing accident. So, yeah, I’m a bit compromised.”
Standing in the pharmacy aisle, dressed in blue jeans and a green flannel shirt and with a yellow medical mask wrapped around his face, Molloy let out a heavy sigh. “If I get infected, I’m a goner.”
Molloy said he and his wife, also in her 60s with some history of health trouble, have been on self-imposed house arrest for nearly a month. They venture from home only when absolutely necessary. This was one of those times: Molloy had prescriptions ready for pickup, “and I figured I might as well stock up while I’m here,” he said, motioning to his shopping cart. (He grinned, acknowledging the mix of frozen foods and candy bars.)
There will be no return to normal for the Molloys—at least, not anytime soon. Covid-19 is far too menacing. Until a vaccine is available, they will remain in lockdown, praying to avoid exposure during their rare emergences. The hardest part, Peter Molloy said, is that their 24-year-old son lives in Georgia and cannot come visit. It would be far too risky. “We’re not going to see him for a while,” he said, emotion choking at his voice. “Maybe a long while.”
Molloy understands why, two weeks into a nationwide timeout, people want to get back to work, back to school, back to their lives. He also understands that, as a retiree with some savings stashed away, he can afford to wait out the pandemic in ways other people can’t. He just wishes the country had a little more patience, a little more perspective.
“I actually get it, this talk about the economic trade-off not being acceptable, because more people die of the flu every year, or from addiction, and we don’t slow down for them,” he said. “But this is different. Forget about the economy for a minute. I wouldn’t trade all the money in the world for my wife. Besides, we’re the most prosperous country in the history of the world. We will come back from this. The economy will come back from this. But let’s not kid ourselves. And the president, that’s what he’s treating us like: kids. Like we don’t know what’s going on. He needs to treat us like adults. We’re not going to flip a switch on Easter. Give me a break.”
Molloy was referring, of course, to President Donald Trump’s remark on the afternoon of March 24: “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” Incredibly, just 24 hours later, every single shopper I spoke with cited the president’s quote—completely unsolicited. It was a testament to the power of the bully pulpit. It also suggested that Americans were listening intently for some concrete marker, some hint of the endgame, some semblance of a date-certain to which they could look forward.
For Molloy, a Trump voter who had already begun to grow disillusioned with the president, it was an unforgivable blunder. “He’s constantly sending mixed messages, and that’s totally unacceptable,” Molloy said. “It’s been the story of his administration. His behavior, his tweets—he just does not act like a commander in chief. And it’s gotten even worse with this crisis.”
I asked if he could see himself voting for Trump again. “There is no way,” Molloy answered.
They were in less immediate danger than the Molloys: a bit younger, healthier, with more margin for error and fewer reasons for existential dread.
And yet nobody inside Sam’s Club communicated the panic—or moved with the purpose—of MARK and BETH CLANCY.
Their faces were smothered beneath medical masks. Their hands were wrapped with latex gloves. And their shopping cart was overflowing to the point that Beth began dropping items into a grocery bag she’d brought for backup. When I asked if we could talk, they looked at me like I was holding a loaded gun to my own head. That’s why you came to Sam’s Club? To talk?
“Two million deaths! Two. Million. Deaths. That’s where we’re headed,” Mark told me, his eyes bulging from behind his black-rimmed glasses. “America is going to get it worse than any of them—China, Italy, any of them. Two million deaths!”
Standing in the refrigeration aisle, plundered egg racks framing an ominous backdrop, the Clancys explained how their family had recently moved to DEFCON 1. Their son, living in Ferndale outside Detroit, went in bunker mode with his roommates. Their daughter, who lives in Manhattan, had fled to New Hampshire for purposes of solitary quarantine. This was the first time Mark and Beth had left home in two weeks—and it was only because of poor planning.
“Last time we came, we got two weeks’ worth of supplies,” Beth explained, shaking her head in disgust. “This time, we’re getting two months’ worth.”
Stacking a box of drumstick ice cream cones onto his trolley—which was already squealing beneath the weight of bottled water, frozen meats, and every other survivalist essential—Mark explained that he had nowhere to go. His employer, whom he asked me not to identify, has gifted most of its workers “an indefinite vacation.” He said money would get tight sooner or later, but for the time being, he was relieved.
Beth felt the same way. There was just one problem: She needed prescriptions refilled, and her doctor had abruptly closed the office and stopped seeing patients. “I have high blood pressure and anxiety, and I need my medications,” she said, making no effort to mask the desperation in her voice. “It’s crazy. This just can’t go on.”
I asked the Clancys if they had confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis. Beth inhaled sharply. Mark made a gurgling noise, like the excess of words were clogging his throat.
“No!” he managed. “The pussy-grabber has no idea what he’s doing. He’s out of his element, out of his depth. He calls it a hoax and now he wants people to go to church on Easter? The man is insane. And you know something? These morons in Congress aren’t much better.”
There are different strands of fear. I met people afraid of infection. Afraid of isolation. Afraid of never seeing loved ones again. Afraid of the uncertainty. Afraid of the unknown.
I met people who were afraid of dying.
I also met people who were afraid of not living.
“How long can we do this? I mean, really?” said MATT CAULEY. “I don’t blame anyone for being scared, but I think this is one big overreaction. I mean, we’ve had in Michigan, what, 24 deaths so far? More people die in car accidents. You don’t see us stop working because of it.”
Cauley, 58, is the owner-operator of his one-man trucking business. He pays for his own semitrailer, his own insurance, his own gas, his own repairs and maintenance. He only makes money when there are shipments to move. Most of his loads are automotive parts. With the manufacturing of those products all but frozen, he’s gone without a haul for three weeks.
“The truck is just sitting in my driveway,” he said, cradling a colossal twin pack of squeezable ketchup bottles. “Every night I call dispatch, asking if there’s a load to pick up in the morning. They check. And they tell me no. And honestly, I think they’re going to be telling me no for a long time.”
Cauley said he learned at a young age from farmers he knew: “Save during the good harvests, so you’re not starving during the droughts.” The problem is, there’s no way of knowing when this particular drought might end. And he can only survive off past harvests for so long.
“I’ll be OK for a little while, but after that —” Cauley said, his voice trailing off. “There’s nobody to take care of me.”
What about the government?
“At least Trump is making sense,” he responded, suddenly upbeat. “He’s out there saying we’ve got to get going, get people back to work by Easter. So, that’s a good sign. At least he’s been on top of it.”
Cauley stopped to correct himself. “Well, at first, you know, even Trump thought it was no big deal,” he said. “But who could blame him? It’s an invisible thing. Anyway, now the worst is over. People are getting tested. If they’re healthy, we’ve got to get them back to work.”
“We’ve got to take care of people, as many people as we can, especially the people in real danger,” DUANE W. said, standing in the beer aisle, not 20 feet from where I’d spoken with Cauley.
Duane hadn’t been a part of that conversation. But it hardly mattered: Everyone, everywhere, was discussing the same thing. “I’ve been hearing these right-wingers talking about acceptable losses,” he said. “Well, that’s fine—but what if we propose that their mother has got to die? That their father has got to die? What then?”
Duane, an engineering project manager in his mid-50s, spoke with me on the condition that I conceal his last name and not photograph his face. He hates to think of himself as frightened. But the truth is, he’s been on edge ever since Trump’s election, and the coronavirus panic is only making things worse. “As a black man, in an age where these crazies on the internet can track you down, it’s just unnerving,” he said.
Duane doesn’t blame Trump for the virus’ spread. As loathsome as he finds the president, Duane sees this crisis as an act of God, “one of those things that nobody could have foreseen just how bad it would be, until it was too late.”
What bothers him is Trump’s unsteady hand. Because he’s working from home, Duane has had the chance to watch the White House briefings. Every day, he tunes in hoping for reassurance from the president. Every day, he turns off the TV feeling more unsettled than ever.
“First it’s a hoax, and then it’s a real threat, now we need to get back to work by Easter. What?” Duane said, squinting in mock confusion. “He’s out of control. I just wish he would step aside and let the scientists and medical professionals speak to the country. That’s who should be informing us. It shouldn’t even be political in nature.”
Duane has grown accustomed to Trump’s inconsistencies. Most of the time, he has decided, they are harmless enough. What upsets him about this particular situation is how the president’s “constant gyrations” might tip the scales of society’s most delicate balance. It didn’t take long, he noted, for Trump’s floated target date of Easter to spawn harsher, more cavalier talk of a binary choice between America’s economic health and America’s responsibility to save every life possible.
“I’ve lost a hell of a lot of money these last few weeks. I know a lot of people taking pay cuts and losing jobs. It’s scary, man. And shoot, I’m getting close to retirement, so it’s even scarier,” he said. “I care about the economy, too. But that can’t be the only thing we care about.”
SELETA DANTZLER was coming straight from work, stopping at Sam’s Club to restock on groceries. Like more than half the people I saw at the store, Dantzler was wearing a face mask. Unlike the others, she wears one all day.
As a senior medical assistant at the nearby University of Michigan hospital, Dantzler had witnessed a tragic progression in her workplace: from hearing about the China-born virus, to preparing for it, to welcoming the first few cases, to watching it proliferate wing by wing, to fearing its spread could bring the hospital to its knees.
Now, staring into a depleted cooler of seafood after another exhausting shift, Dantzler struggled to describe the scene.
“Everyone’s quiet. And the more casualties we’re seeing, the quieter it’s getting,” she said, her own pitch barely above a murmur. “Right now, we’re all just trying to keep our faith in God and do the best we can do.”
Inside the hospital, the best Dantzler can do is help keep people alive. Outside the hospital, the best she can do is keep people from getting sick in the first place. She’s made it her mission to tell anyone who will listen, from friends to family to neighbors, that they need to bolster their immune systems. “People are making a run on food, a run on toilet paper, but they should be making a run on vitamins and supplements,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been preaching to everyone: take your elderberry, take your zinc, take your vitamin C.”
Dantzler tries to block out the noise at work. But it’s difficult. She knows the conversations that are taking place surrounding death and medicine, life and economics. And perhaps because she sees death more frequently than most, her outlook surprised me.
“There’s got to be a balance. If you stop the money flow to all these millions of families, then people might start hurting even worse than they are now,” she said. “They’re going to be afraid for their lives in a different way. And then what? If people are scared they won’t survive, [that] their kids won’t survive, then they’re going to do things that could make this even worse.”
The way Dantzler sees it, we’re fighting two diseases at once. One is Covid-19. The other is fear. People are scared of the sickness, she said, but they’re also scared in general—of losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their sense of belonging and normalcy. It’s not good enough to ward off one disease while the other spreads unchecked. Both have to be treated.
“I could get infected any day. But I really don’t think about it much because I’m not going to live in fear,” she said. “You can’t be afraid doing this job. When you’re afraid, you aren’t thinking clearly. That’s what separates medical staff from ordinary people in these situations: fear.”
Ordinary people like the other shoppers in the store. Ordinary people like me, the reporter with an anxiety disorder who sat in the parking lot for an hour before walking in and bathed his notebook in Purell after walking out. Ordinary people like the governor of Michigan and, yes, even the president of the United States.
“I actually feel they’re doing the best they can do under the circumstances. I would hate to be in their shoes, because we’ve never seen anything like this. They’re scared, too,” Dantzler said of Trump.
“I really like what our governor’s done, how she’s spoken about it, how she’s handled herself,” Dantzler said of Gretchen Whitmer.
What about President Trump?
She smiled, tilting her head sideways and arching an eyebrow. “I’m praying on that one.”
It’s trivial in the larger sweep of events, Washington, but some of my most anticipated trips for this project have been postponed indefinitely. That means you’ll be hearing an awful lot from Michigan in the weeks and months ahead. There are worse things. This is, after all, the linchpin of the Electoral College (not to mention, the best state in the union). By the time we’re finished, maybe I’ll have persuaded you to move here, too.
Nothing is permanent—in politics or in life. Before long I’ll resume my reporting journeys across America. If you’ve got places you think I should visit, people you think I should meet, drop me a line: L2W@politico.com.
Until then, please keep safe. And try to make some memories during this time with family.
Your old friend,
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