After 6 months of COVID-19, living, working and learning in Greater Lansing will never be the same

LANSING – Six months down.

How many to go? That's not clear.

What is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently altered life in Greater Lansing.

We lost community leaders to the virus. Businesses have shuttered or are operating on a shoestring. Some students are attending class from the couch; others are in person, masked up and 6 feet apart.

We're reevaluating "essential" work, reminded that often low-paying jobs are the ones that keep life ticking.

Masked faces are normal. So are uncertainty, job loss and, for some families, grief.

For grieving families like the Kellys, life will never be the same

Only three people attended the Lansing burial service for Kious Kelly.

His parents and sister laid the 48-year-old to rest nearly six months ago, just weeks after he had been intubated at the ICU with COVID-19.

"That was the saddest day of my life," Kelly's sister, Marya Sherron, said. "There's no closure. We were just putting that casket in the cold ground."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had recently restricted gatherings, and the family didn't want to risk exposing guests to coronavirus. Kelly, an assistant nurse manager, was one of the first health care workers known to have died from the virus in New York City.

Kious Kelly makes a goofy face alongside his sister, Marya, in a photo from the 1990s.

Since Kelly's death on March 24, more than 190,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. More than 6,500 of them were from Michigan.

Sherron thinks daily about their families. She knows firsthand their lives will be forever changed.

To Sherron, Kelly will always be "James," the name he went by during his childhood in Lansing. He called her "baby girl."

Kious Kelly in the early 2000s. He first moved to New York City to work as a dancer.

He sang along to musicals with his mom and embarrassed Sherron when he danced in the aisles at Meijer.

"He was always in motion," Sherron said. "Every Sunday in our house was a performance."

Kelly moved to New York to become a professional dancer before switching careers. He worked long hours at Mount Sinai West hospital but seemed fulfilled caring for his patients. He told Sherron during the last Christmas they spent together that he planned to get another degree in health care administration.

"He was at peace," Sherron remembered. "I've never seen him better. I think that time together was a pure divine gift."

Kious Kelly and  Marya Sherron pose for a photo during the last Christmas they spent together in December 2019.

Kelly is the first person Sherron has lost, so she can't say whether her grief is normal. Some days, she can make calls about Kelly's estate without crying. That might be progress. Watching the news is overwhelming.

"It's so hurtful when you have actually lost someone and masks are political," Sherron said. 

After Kelly’s death, Sherron threw herself into advocating for mandates requiring hospitals to provide workers with adequate personal protective equipment.

Sherron wants Kelly to be remembered and tries to shield her parents from painful questions by handling media requests herself.

"I have two sons, so I can't even imagine what they're going through," Sherron said of her parents. "I hurt for them more than I hurt for myself. The thing that is missing is never not going to be missing."

By highlighting inequities, pandemic fuels call for fair treatment of working class

Protesters have flooded Lansing since the pandemic hit, clogging the streets to oppose coronavirus business shutdowns, rallying against racism, marching and lighting a fire to show their fury over police brutality. 

This protest was different.

The roughly 30 people gathered Tuesday were far from the Capitol lawn or a city's downtown. Instead, they stood in the rain outside a duplex on North Pennsylvania Avenue as part of the Lansing Tenants Union's first demonstration.

The tenants union formed in the early days of lockdown, when members realized housing instability would become a key issue.

Protesters' goals were two-fold: To block the eviction of a man who had lost his income because of closures to slow the spread of the virus and to send the message that eviction, particularly during a pandemic, is wrong. 

Members of the Lansing Tenants Union and other activists show their support for a tenant facing eviction Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, outside a home in the 400 block of N. Pennsylvania Avenue in Lansing.

The pandemic has highlighted the problems working class people face, including high rent, poor access to health care and transportation, stagnant wages and a lack of paid sick leave for low-wage workers.

It might also fuel a solution.

"There's a lot more of a spotlight on social issues," said Kenyon Cavender, who led the Tuesday protest. "We hope that we can take that into the future, where they're now part of the public discourse, [so] that evictions happening down the street is not something that people tolerate."

Many low-wage workers were considered "essential" when the state locked down in March. Custodians, grocery store clerks, fast-food workers and many making minimum wage still had to report to work, risking exposure to the coronavirus because they couldn't shelter in place.

For a time, many of them made less working than they would have on unemployment.

The pandemic also pushed more Americans into poverty, said LaShawn Erby, a Lansing activist and founding organizer of the local chapter of the Michigan Poor People's Campaign.

Unemployment skyrocketed during the pandemic, and many government programs boosting unemployment payments and moratoriums on evictions have expired.

"We believe that it is a basic human right to have a safe and affordable place to live, clean water, food to eat, and that no one should have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet," Erby said in an email. "When poor people of all backgrounds unite their votes, things will change."

Low-wage workers are paid less during the pandemic than they might have been if a pair of ballot measures had made it to voters in 2018.

That year, Michigan voters petitioned for ballot proposals that would have increased the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022 and guaranteed workers earn an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

Signage seen near E. Kalamazoo Street and Shepard Street in Lansing show an eviction defense hotline for renters having trouble paying rent during the COVID-19 pandemic, seen Tuesday, Sept. 8. 2020.

They never made it to voters. The legislature adopted those proposals as bills that summer, which kept them from being placed on the November ballot. Lawmakers then watered them down after the election.

Those calls for higher wages and guaranteed sick time would have a better shot during the pandemic, Erby said.

"Finally, people are becoming aware of how terribly exploited low wage workers have been," she said. "It's past time for that, because low wage-earning and no sick leave for the marginalized is nothing new."

Online or masked up, 'the kids are so resilient'

Barb Knighton describes online teaching as "spinning plates while juggling kittens."

She and her fourth grade students at Waverly Community Schools' Elmwood Elementary School have navigated technology bumps and getting to know each other through a screen since school started on Aug. 31. Class is online through at least the end of September.

Knighton and her students log in every day, aiming to duplicate the feel of a day at school and get into a streamlined routine.

Online learning does have hiccups, Knighton said, but she learns things every day that help make her better at it.

She thinks there is a way to ensure online learning works, though it will take teachers "spending time and working on it and getting our parents to be partners."

The one thing that hasn’t changed is students, Knighton said.

Barb Knighton records a division lesson for her fourth grade class at  Waverly Community Schools' Elmwood Elementary School during the COVID-19 pandemic in her living room.

Her students were "so excited and happy" on the first day of school, and the class has laughed, sung and told jokes. They’re even starting to have inside jokes, she said.

"It really is starting, in some ways, just like every year has," Knighton said.

At St. Thomas Catholic School in East Lansing, which opened its building this year, the kids also are the one thing that hasn’t changed, Principal Meghan Krusky said.

It's "a new world" with the school closed to everyone except students and staff, Krusky said, but students are taking it in stride.

"Even with the changes that have occurred … the kids themselves haven't changed," she said. "The kids are so resilient and excited to be back."

Some students occasionally need reminders to stay 6 feet apart, but they otherwise haven’t found it hard to adjust to the new guidelines.

For students, masks aren’t an inconvenience, Krusky said – they’re a way to make sure they can go to school and see their friends every day.

"Kids are amazing through all this, and I think that some adults can learn from our kids," Krusky said.

Virus turns shopping into ‘a different world’ 

The last six months ushered in "a different world" for Jamie Robinson and her downtown Mason businesses.

Robinson and her husband own Darrell’s Supermarket and Hardware, the Vault Delicatessen and Bestsellers Bookstore and Coffee Co., where they also operate a catering business. For the last six months, each business has grappled with its own challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bestsellers bookstore and The Vault Delicatessen photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 89, 2020, in Mason.

The deli was initially closed, as Whitmer ordered restaurants to close dine-in service. She also limited which retail businesses could open. Bestsellers didn’t make the cut. 

When they could reopen, Robinson – following worker protection mandates from the state – installed barriers to protect cashiers, required masks for customers, set up curbside pickup, limited capacity in the businesses and bought personal protective equipment for her staff.

Business hasn't kept up.

Owner Jamie Robinson looks up a book at the bookstore Bestsellers on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Mason. Robinson and her husband own Bestsellers, The Vault Delicatessen and Darrell's Market and Hardware.

The coffee shop has fewer customers since county government workers in the Hilliard building and Mason courthouse are mostly working from home.

The grocery store and deli fought through a tight the supply chain that made it hard to stock shelves. Robinson could order 100 cases of product, but only five would arrive. Fresh meat became limited and prices increased. One supplier even told her not to put its products on sale because they could not guarantee enough available stock.

"It's just a daily battle to get product to our store to sell," Robinson said.

Staying in business is expensive — the cost of gloves, an anti-bacterial cleaning system, sanitizer for tables and carts add up.

That will mean higher prices of groceries, coffee and books.

"The cost of doing business based on safety measures and mandated executive orders has gone up,” Robinson said. "Be prepared to support locals in a different way because that’s what it is."

While the first six months of the pandemic presented its challenges, Robinson thinks more are on the horizon.

"We're going to be doing this for a year at least," she said.