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Two years after COVID lockdown, life in Greater Lansing may never be the same

In March 2020, stores began limiting purchases of essential items like toilet paper and paper towels as people rushed to buy groceries in anticipation of COVID-related stay-at-home orders.
Wesley Tingey
In March 2020, stores began limiting purchases of essential items like toilet paper and paper towels as people rushed to buy groceries in anticipation of COVID-related stay-at-home orders.

When Michigan first started shutting down in response to COVID-19, Erica Green holed up in her dormitory with friends to discuss the strange new virus.

They wondered: Would Michigan State University actually send students home? (Yes.)

Would they come back before finals like university officials originally planned? (No.)

"I definitely didn't anticipate going home from my dorm forever that freshman year," said Green, who is now a junior studying social relations and policy.

Two years ago this week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued Michigan's first stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Michiganders were told to hunker down while staying six feet away from anyone outside their households.

That's unless, like McLaren Greater Lansing Chaplain Phil Apol, they were doing something deemed essential.

Apol kept going to work, where he mostly counseled COVID-19 patients in their final hours.

"Once COVID hit, the hospital, which had had been a public space with volunteers and family members, it became a kind of eerie ghost town," Apol said.

With visitors banned or restricted at various points during the pandemic, Apol supported people who were forced to say their goodbyes at a distance.

"With rare exceptions, most of them were, were through glass," Apol said. "The most painful part of the COVID experience for a lot of family members was not being able to touch without real risk."

For Apol, COVID meant learning to convey empathy through a mask.

"Pastoral care is very dependent on body language, especially of the face," Apol said. "So I had to get really good at using my eyes to communicate."

Now that coronavirus cases are falling, Green savors seeing faces again, although masks are still required during her indoor classes at MSU.

"I see people outside of class and I don't know what their whole face looks like," Green said.

The last two years have been filled with missed moments, both big and small. East Lansing resident Colin Murad has longed to see a movie in theaters.

Murad, a state employee, tries to be cautious since his 3-year-old son is still too young to be vaccinated against the virus.

"Just being able to, you know, to see friends and family without having to ask all the questions ahead of time ... that has definitely been one of those things that you take for granted," Murad said.

Before COVID, Rose Jangmi Cooper, a Lansing-based singer and actor, assumed grocery stores shelves would always be fully stocked with essentials like toilet paper.

Normally, "this country is abundantly full of products and you can just go to the store and buy a roll of tissue," Cooper said. "Nobody thinks anything of it."

But, suddenly, people were paying steep prices for hand sanitizer or even turning to the black market for Clorox wipes.

"Seeing that and seeing what a lot of the rest of the world goes to go through on a regular basis that doesn't happen here in America was very eye opening," Cooper said.

And Cooper was thrown for a loop when traveling to certain places or going to certain gatherings was either illegal or risky.

"When you're an American, a lot of times you have this concept that you could do anything you want, go anywhere you want, you know, within reason," Cooper said.

Rosalinda Calley feels wistful about the family gatherings she missed out on before her brother, 45-year-old Ramiro Jose Mata, died of COVID in January 2021.

"We weren't able to have all those moments that we normally would have together," Calley said. "We were just trying to do the right thing by everybody keeping to their own household so that we would just be part of the solution."

Calley lives in Ionia County near the Bellamy Creek prison, where her brother worked as corrections officer. She feels a pang whenever she sees a prison worker wearing the grey uniform that Mata wore for more than 20 years.

Mata's job was difficult and he didn't enjoy it, Calley said. But it offered a lot of overtime shifts, which Mata took to provide for his four children. He loved taking them to the zoo or the amusement park. And he loved to grill outside, no matter the weather.

"It would be the middle of winter and he would be bundled up and he would just be like, 'What? I'm grilling,'" Calley said.

After two years of witnessing daily COVID deaths, Apol says his own perspective has shifted forever.

"It'll always be a pretty present memory of how vulnerable and fragile and precious life is," he said.

When the state's first COVID-related orders went into effect, Cooper remembers Michiganders banding together.

"When the pandemic started, it felt like everybody was like, okay, 'Yeah, let's pull it together, let's make things happen, let's, you know, kick this pandemic's butt,'" she said. "But as time went on, you saw people fighting over a piece of cloth, like piece of cloth over your face."

Now, Cooper says she'll never take for granted that the air she breathes is safe and free from deadly pathogens. But she wishes Michiganders would care just as much for each other's safety.

"It would be nice for us to treat each other with the kindness and the gentleness and the caution that we did two years ago when this first started," she said. "I wish we had learned that lesson."

How has your life changed since the pandemic began? Let us know about your experience two years into COVID-19 by leaving a voicemail at 517 355-9527. We might play your message on air.

Music: In My Head by Podington Bear is used under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) license.

Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.
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