BENZONIA, Mich. — Tucked away on the northern shore of Lake Michigan, the residents of Benzie County spent the final days of winter and the early weeks of spring confident they were safe, but agitated about what was coming.
Like other lightly populated U.S. counties, this hard-to-reach vacation destination found itself largely isolated from the Covid-19 pandemic that tore through metropolises and then smaller cities and towns earlier this year. Now, as Michigan reopens, residents here fear they could find themselves on the frontlines.
Benzie, a one-stoplight county at the end of the road, is suddenly a microcosm of the frustration and resignation that seems to be encompassing the entire country as businesses start to reopen.
“Not too much to worry about,” said Shaun Johnson, a retired teacher raised here, describing the only four cases Benzie has seen so far. “People wore masks. People were pretty comfortable.
“Now,” he added, “stores are reopening. They hire more younger people. Customers are showing up without masks.”
A scenic region of thick forests, clean lakes, and tiny villages, Benzie County lies 80 miles from the closest thruway and 220 miles northwest of Detroit. Its scenery and remote rural character form the alluring foundation of a sizable summer tourist economy that starts every May.
The county’s health and medical professionals predict that the number of Covid-19 infections will rise. How much? Nobody can project because the summer population is transient. More than 1,000 second-home owners are arriving from southern Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere across the country. Tens of thousands more will spend a few days, a few weeks, and leave. Various studies have found that during a typical July day, more than 30,000 people reside in the county and thousands more are day visitors.
“We do not yet know what impact the gradual reopening of the state’s economies will have on cases,” said Kristi Johnson, chief nursing officer at Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital, a unit of Munson Healthcare in Frankfort, the county’s largest town. “Until then, we are staying the course and continue to be diligent in our hand hygiene, social distancing, and other safety measures.”
If cases mount, the hospital and health agencies insist they are prepared. Business owners, too, are taking precautions.
Stormcloud, a popular brewpub in Frankfort, prepared a 20-page plan for opening a week after Memorial Day that included requiring the 50 employees, many of them students, to wear masks and gloves. “We heard from three sets of parents who wanted to know what the plan was for keeping their people safe,” said co-owner Rick Schmitt. “We have a plan. And we want to make sure we don’t slip.”
Employees nervously returned to work. “Honestly, I have been living very, very carefully,” said Mary Pitcher, one of 341 residents of Beulah, the county seat, who works in a restaurant in Frankfort. “I’m going to have to go back to work. My customers aren’t wearing a mask. I’m in front of their face. I’m right there. The world is starting up again. I have to participate whether I’m comfortable or not.”
The county’s seclusion, say health authorities, is one reason for the low number of Covid-19 cases. So far.
It is also clear that social distancing — the Benzie way of life in winter — and business closures were factors in keeping infections low. Consider that during the 1918 flu pandemic, when the county population was half what it is today, deaths from all causes, including the flu, reached 23 in December 1918, according to historic records. That was more than double the number of deaths in a typical month at that time.
Another reason for the low number of Covid-19 cases is the extensive public health and medical infrastructure that swung into action in March. Leaders of the two-county Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department convened regular meetings with county authorities, emergency medical crews, the local hospital, the regional Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, school administrators, and Northwest Michigan Health Services, which operates a medical and dental clinic in Benzonia. The primary topics were communications and coordination to establish safety measures for residents and employees, response to the governor’s executive orders, acquisition of personal protective equipment, conducting testing, and making results known to the public.
“We were ready,” said Michelle Klein, the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department’s director of personal health. “We’ve been preparing for a biological outbreak since 9/11. The background infrastructure had already been created. We’ve done many training exercises over the years.”
The two-county health district traced the contacts associated with the handful of infections in its jurisdiction and confirmed that no other cases developed. Contact tracing will occur with any new cases, said Klein.
And testing has been fairly extensive across the region. Northwest Michigan Health Services tested 700 people in its Traverse City office. There were 11 positive results that resulted in 14-day quarantines, said Gwen Williams, the agency’s chief of development. Munson Healthcare, owner and manager of nine hospitals in Northern Michigan, reports that of the 5,740 patients it tested, 303 people were positive.
The county’s four long-term care and assisted living facilities responded quickly to protect residents. Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital shut down its long-term care facility to visitors on March 11; 12 days later they closed off visitation in the hospital.
“We’ve evaluated nearly every practice, from visitors entering the building, to the way we clean our facility,” said Mark Langlois, Paul Oliver’s medical director of long-term care. “It’s been a challenging few months with a lot of hard work. But we have been successful in keeping Covid-19 out of our facility.”
The professional medical and health response to the virus also was assisted by projects developed spontaneously in the county’s private sector. Josh Stoltz, director of Grow Benzie, a nonprofit community center, organized a group to sew face masks. He worked with Benzie Bus, the county’s transit agency, to distribute 1,500 masks around the county and region during the pandemic’s first six weeks.
Aubrey Ann Parker, co-owner and editor of the Betsie Current, a local newspaper, worked with three colleagues to prepare and publish the Benzie County Resource Guide, an 18-page directory of public and private agencies, professionals, and services for people who either needed help or wanted to help in the early spring. She distributed the directory online and in 6,000 printed copies. “Everyone was sharing stuff on social media — different resources that people could use. It was all getting buried,” she said. “We wanted to put all that information in one place and have it categorized and up to date to make it easy to find what you were looking for.”
Parker and Soltz said they will revive both projects if there is demand.
The largest Covid-19 outbreak to date in northern Michigan occurred in much larger Grand Traverse County, 20 miles east, where 35 cases were confirmed and five people died. But the 12 newest infections, a 52% increase, were reported after Memorial Day, according to the county health department. On June 6 Benzie County confirmed its fifth case, the first since mid-April. Those details, attracting headlines and attention from regional radio, television, and Facebook pages, stirred anxiety.
“Everyone is concerned,” said Mitch Deisch, Benzie County administrator. “This is not anything like we’ve seen before. We have family. We have friends. We also have an obligation to provide services to 17,500 residents. And we take that obligation seriously.”
Within the county leadership, though, a schism developed over the definition of obligation and service. On April 15 — the same day the first Covid case was reported — Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel issued a formal notice that shocked many residents. Schendel announced that he’d allied himself with three other sheriffs in neighboring counties to voice opposition to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders shuttering operations in the state.
“As a result,” he added, “we will not have strict enforcement of these orders.”
A self-described “constitutional” officer, the notice coincided with “Operation Gridlock,” held that same day, when supporters of President Trump blocked streets in Lansing, the Michigan state capital, to oppose Whitmer’s orders that kept businesses closed, which were seen as a violation of their rights.
Schendel embraced that view. “Allowing those without paychecks back to work is imperative to the economic success and well-being of our community,” he said. “Each of us took an oath to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, and to ensure that your God-given rights are not violated. We believe that we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties.”
The sheriff’s notice floored some senior county officials, who declined to comment on it for this article. It also rattled many residents.
“It was a political stunt,” said Timothy Young, a resident of Honor, Mich., and founder of Food For Thought, a specialty food company there. “At a time like this we should be coming together as a community. We look to law enforcement to be a glue for our society at times of crisis. It was unbecoming for law enforcement officers.”
Most significantly, the sheriff’s attack on the governor’s safeguards was a rebuke to the elaborate safety measures, many recommended by the governor, that his own department was taking to protect its officers, staff members, people they arrested, and inmates in the county jail.
In an interview, Undersheriff Kyle Rosa explained that since mid-March officers wore gloves, goggles, and face masks as needed during their patrols.
Arrest practices were altered to reduce the number of people incarcerated. Intoxicated people, and only those who were dangerous to themselves or others, were arrested. Following arrest, they were monitored for fever and asked screening questions, like where they had recently traveled.
With court oversight, several inmates in the county’s 49-bed jail were freed to make space to quarantine new inmates for 14 days. The average number of people incarcerated fell to 11 a day, down from 25 before the pandemic. The department halted visits from families.
Seven inmates agreed to voluntary Covid-19 tests. None was positive. And until Memorial Day, the department closed its lobby. “We have services available for the public. Fingerprints for jobs and concealed pistol permits,” Rosa said. “You can’t do somebody’s prints without being in their space. We felt that would be a harm.”
In the weeks before the sheriff’s provocative notice, and continuing through May and June, Benzie residents patiently observed guidelines and protective measures issued by local and state health authorities. They wore masks and kept safe distance in public spaces — grocery and convenience stores and post offices at first. Restaurants and stores, bars and churches after closure measures were lifted.
Residents and business owners say they are committed to convincing summer residents to do the same.