Back to work, but not to normal: life in Michigan when coronavirus ebbs

temperature taking in Wuhan, China

The first steps along Michigan’s long road to normalcy after a COVID-19 emergency may include more people returning to work, but don’t hold your breath for a trip to the bar or a crowded summer festival. (Shutterstock)

Six weeks into a pandemic battle that has hit Michigan harder than almost any state and forced drastic restrictions on commerce and human movement, we may soon take the first tentative step in a long road back to normalcy. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Friday she hopes to “have some relaxing” of Michigan’s existing stay-at-home order by May 1, and said she will provide detailed plans for combatting the coronavirus by next week

The key word is “some.” 

And any back-to-work order, when it comes, is likely to mean a very different definition of normal. 

Some Michiganders lucky enough to still have a job may be back in the office within weeks, but it is likely a very different workplace. 

You may need to have your temperature taken before entering the building. You may be required to wear a mask. You probably won’t be eating in the office cafeteria or congregating by the water cooler. And if you normally worked in a crowded setting, you and your colleagues may well take turns working from home to enable social distancing at work.

“Our emotional life is going to change. Our physical health is going to change. Our personal relationships and professional relationships are going to change,” said Dr. Teena Chopra, a professor of infectious diseases at Wayne State University who leads infection control for DMC’s eight hospitals. “The world is going to have to reboot itself.”

Outdoor-oriented businesses, such as construction or landscaping where people can more naturally work apart, may get a jump first. 

But don’t expect to reclaim other mainstays of your pre-pandemic life, such as group social gatherings, trips to the gym or dine-in meals at your favorite restaurant, for a while longer. 

And you may not be able to visit your favorite bar or re-enroll your kids in day care, unless you’re a nurse or other essential worker, anytime soon.

As Whitmer works with state and regional officials to consider next steps, interviews with state leaders and an analysis of several national plans for lifting COVID-19 restrictions suggest Michiganders can expect a slow, possibly halting process that won’t end until a vaccine is widely available sometime next year. 

Getting to step one

Despite more heartbreaking numbers, Michigan appears to be wresting some control back from COVID-19. The virus had sickened at least 29,263 people in the state, with a death toll of more than 2,000 as of Thursday.

The daily rate of new cases remains among the nation’s highest, the virus has begun to level in southeast Michigan (although other parts of the state appear to be on the upswing). And the governor is refining guidelines for opening up the state, as Senate Republicans, frustrated by the business shutdown, released a plan Thursday calling for an immediate relaxation of Michigan’s business restrictions.

Whitmer has resisted doing so, noting Monday that “we will get to that point, but we are not there yet.”

Whitmer has said Michigan’s reopening will come in phases and outlined what must happen first: Infections have to fall and the state’s capacity to test for the virus — and track down who’s been near those who are infected — has to rise, and rise massively.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has resisted calls to loosen restrictions on business activity, instead saying Michigan will begin to gradually reopen only after the state is better able to track and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and absorb a potential resurgence of illness. (Photo courtesy of governor's office)

And hospitals have to have the capacity to handle any potential surge after many in southeast Michigan have spent weeks in crisis mode.

Only then, Whitmer said, can the state ease restrictions and follow the still-being-developed guidelines for following social distancing in the workplace.

“No one wants to move on to the next stage more than I do,” the governor said.

Most national plans for reopening the country generally agree on what conditions need to be met first, including one rolled out Thursday by the Trump administration.

They all call for increased testing to make sure that any outbreak of the virus is quickly identified and everyone who might have been exposed is notified and quarantined until tested.

Some suggest every person in the country, whether sick or well, should be tested every two weeks — an astronomical number that would mean over 700,000 tests a day in Michigan alone. That seems highly unlikely.  In the last two weeks, during what appears to be the peak of the pandemic in Michigan, the state has averaged 4,400 tests a day.

A plan from the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute calls for 750,000 tests a week nationwide, mostly of people with symptoms but also health care and other essential workers, as well as those who have been in contact with people with confirmed cases. That would mean 20,000 tests a week in Michigan, which is actually about 10,000 fewer than the state is currently conducting.

The Trump administration’s plan is laxer, calling for testing only those who have symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. That would mean no testing for people without symptoms, which inevitably would exclude some who are silent carriers of the virus. 

Whitmer has been critical of this approach, arguing that more widespread testing is needed — particularly among health care workers — to prevent a surge in new cases when person-to-person interaction resumes.

All plans also call for tracking down anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has been infected. That, too, would appear daunting.

In Berrien County in southwest Michigan, it took up to 20 workers, split between the local public health department and local hospitals, to track down 1,500 people tied to 105 cases, said Gillian Conrad, communications manager for the county public health department.

From its own efforts at “contact tracing,” the county was able to link some spread to a funeral and its first two cases to a meet-and-greet after a concert for a gospel singer. It’s painstaking work but essential because it allowed the county to limit the spread by telling people to self-quarantine.

“This is one of the best ways to cut off that chain of transmission,” Conrad said.

But that took a lot of personnel hours from nurses who had other duties but instead were on the phone 12 hours a day. “It’s just a big giant game of ‘telephone,’” Conrad said.


And that was in a county dealing with just a handful of new infections a day. 

How would that scale in Wayne County, the state’s biggest, where there have been 13,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and hundreds of new ones a day? 

A gradual return to work and play

Political and business leaders who spoke to Bridge noted that while the plan to reopen Michigan’s economy is still taking shape, conversations so far have focused on a staged, possibly regionalized approach. 

Construction, landscaping and other businesses that have social distancing built into their business model will likely reopen before bars, restaurants and hair salons. Some business leaders and politicians are pushing for certain businesses in northern Michigan, where the spread of coronavirus has been slower, to reopen before those in metro Detroit and Genesee County, where the infection rate is high. 

Whitmer so far resisted this idea, cautioning that “COVID-19 doesn’t observe county lines.”

Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said he anticipates stores and restaurants could eventually resume business with “aggressive and formalized” safety measures such as customer capacity limits and glass barriers between customers and cashiers. 

But depending how the first wave of reopenings goes, that could be months down the road, said University of Michigan epidemiologist Joseph Eisenberg. The key to a successful return to normalcy, Eisenberg said, is “to make sure we don’t relax too much, too fast.”

First, Eiesenberg said, open the lowest-risk business sectors like forestry and lawn care, then wait a few weeks to make sure infection rates don’t spike. Get a little bolder, opening restaurants at reduced capacity and permitting gatherings of 10 or fewer people. Wait a few weeks. If new infections remain low, consider the next step. 

Getting the timing right could mean the difference between a sustained and gradual return to normalcy with minimal new infections, or a COVID-19 resurgence that kills many more people and provokes another stay-home order.

“We can’t afford a second wave, and so it’s going to be incredibly important that we do this right,” Whitmer said.

Moving to more open economy

Most plans set out broad metrics of what has to happen before removing another layer of restrictions. The Trump plan, like the AEI plan,  moves along in two-week intervals of declining infections, falling numbers of people with flu-like symptoms, sustained hospital capacity to treat all patients and “robust” testing of health-care workers.

In that next phase, the ill and vulnerable, including the elderly, are encouraged to remain sheltered at home because there still isn’t a vaccine or a proven treatment for COVID-19. Even the less vulnerable will still be encouraged to wear masks and groups of 50 or more are discouraged.

At the workplace, common areas would still remain closed and many would still be encouraged to work from home or work in shifts to remain safely apart.

Schools could reopen, as well as perhaps day care centers and camps, according to the White House and AEI plans. But a plan from the left-leaning Center for American Progress would continue to ban gatherings of 50 or more people until a vaccine provides “herd immunity.” 

Michiganders shouldn’t get their hopes up with summer plans to visit popular beaches, send their children to camp or attend music festivals, sporting events or large professional conferences. The same goes for fall college classes in 100-seat lecture halls. These could be among the last things to return — possibly not until a vaccine is developed. 

“When can U-M safely have 100,000 people in their stadium?” asked Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, who sits on a bipartisan committee planning to issue recommendations Friday regarding how to safely reopen Michigan businesses. “That really is a million-dollar question.”


Will we ever shake hands again? Probably, but experts say it may take time to relax our hygiene habits and regain comfort in crowds, even after a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available. (Shutterstock image)

Organizers of the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City have already lost hope that large gatherings will be allowed by July. They announced Thursday that this year’s festival is canceled. 

Leaders of the West Michigan Whitecaps, the minor league baseball team in the Grand Rapids suburb of Comstock Park, are considering all possible scenarios: Playing baseball in an empty stadium, opening with limited capacity and divided seating to keep fans a safe distance apart, or simply delaying the season until fans can attend a game without special precautions. 

“It’s a heavy sigh after every thought,” said Steve VanWagoner, the team’s marketing and media director, “because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Detroit, Ned Staebler runs TechTown, a co-working space in Midtown where hundreds of companies, nonprofits and entrepreneurs share space. Its layout is open and people frequently sit side-by-side.

Events bring in outside groups almost daily. There are seminars and business meetings throughout each week. But it’s closed now and when it opens, it will look a lot different, Staebler said, though details are unclear.

“First and foremost we want to protect the health of our employees and our tenants,” he said. Now he’s thinking — as most every employer should be thinking, experts say — on what he has to do. How much space between people? Are there limits to occupancy? He knows there will be more “deep cleaning.”

“It’s going to take a lot of effort. We’re not going back to normal next week,” he said.

Even once employers navigate tough new rules to open, customers may still not show up. With the threat of infection still present, who wants to get on an airplane? Go to a restaurant? Ride a crowded tour bus through Michigan wine country?

“I’ll be honest, I’m not going to a baseball game,” said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis for the Anderson Economic Group based in Lansing. “This is so scary.” 

After the vaccine

Even after a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, which national experts still say may take a year or more, some societal norms may never return. 

Office workers who have become used to their home workspace may resist the notion of a daily commute. Michiganders who have turned to online retailers such as Amazon for shopping during the pandemic may never return to brick-and-mortar stores. Physicians and therapists are practicing telemedicine at unrivaled rates

“These are trends that were already happening and went through the roof on the day of the stay-at-home order,” Calley said. 

It may take time for people to feel comfortable returning to behaviors that were common before the pandemic, said Chopra, the Detroit infectious disease specialist. Our new instincts to avoid crowds, wash our hands and keep them to ourselves may be ingrained more deeply than we realize.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the prominent expert in the U.S. response to COVID-19, has suggested that Americans should never shake hands again. 

At Kalkaska United Methodist Church, the Rev. Yong Choel Woo is torn between the church’s role as a conduit for human connection, and the desire to keep his congregants safe. 

Once state Methodist leaders give the go-ahead to resume attending church in-person, Yong expects sparse attendance from a congregation clad in masks at his recommendation. Without such precautions, he said, “the church could be a hotspot.”

“We can get through this situation, but it will take time,” he said. “Until then, we’ll have to be very cautious.”


Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Fri, 04/17/2020 - 3:42pm

I guess if this is what is offered we should be happy right? And none to soon 1,000,000 and rising out of Michigan's 2,000,000 person workforce are out of work. Unfortunately, many of those will be lost and won't come back because of the lack of economic strength to revive them.

middle of the mit
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 7:28pm

MI population hovers around or exceeds 10,000,000 people NOT 2,000,000.

Even if half of the population is under 18..........that's over two times what your figure is.

I guess we all know why you chose the moniker, Nutty.

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 6:38am

I think the guy was talking about people in the workforce being 2 million prior to the loss of jobs, those that were working, not the population of Michigan.

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 5:04pm

Why are you so nasty so often with others commenting? Just living up to the typical liberal know it all stereotype? Give your animosity a rest.

middle of the mit
Thu, 04/23/2020 - 12:42am


Maybe giving what I get?

Want to give animosity a rest?

Try not carrying an AR-15 on your side or brandishing it.

That may be a good start.

Then again, conservatives tell liberals that stand arm in arm doing nothing that they are the ones that are obstructing liberty.

And then you call me a liberal. And tell our liberal Governor that she needs to liberate the State.

Do you see the irony?

You think this is tyranny. Tyranny will kill you, not try to keep from dying. If you think the Governor is trying to kill you, then GO! I see you all over my town. There is NO ONE that is stopping from doing whatever you want. Is there anyone putting you on trains to a work camp or gas chamber? Then stop being dillholes!

I am going to amend every post I make on this board for conservatives sake. What am I going to amend it with? Proof of someone who was a political operative and the way they made you think. Get it?

17:16 into the conversation.

Rick Wilson tells you how he and the republicans did it.

18:53 he tells you that Obama wasn't a crazy liberal.

20 minutes in...he tells you what he did to turn you.

And democrats think the guy that made the republicans what they cool.

I will be saving this post. For further reference.

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 11:53am

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the total Michigan labor force was 4.95 million workers in February 2020. 4.77 million were actively employed then.

Fri, 04/17/2020 - 3:52pm

For me I think Govoner Witmore has been doing a good job. I voted for her. I am always sick of my nieghbors who always act like they are working hard and showing off their stuff. Now they can know my life. Actually i was laid off and because of the pandemic unemployment am going to make almost $700 a week. That is way more than I ever made before. So I am hoping we all stay home safe longer it is healthier. I guess I do feel bad for my nieghbors because the had to let go all there workers go the only nice ones out their bunch. If our senator peters can get us the hero money I won't mind going back to work.

Fri, 04/17/2020 - 4:47pm

This comment illustrates the entire problem with our entitlement mindset in this state. "The Governor is great! She's paying me more to do nothing than I ever made at work!" "Screw my neighbors who work for their nice stuff. Now they can be losers like me."

This person's lack of logic and perspective is simply disgusting. Until you let people like me go back to work to pay for you to stay home and do nothing - that trough will be empty any minute. While you hate success - you rely on it as a parasite. Someone failed basic economics.

middle of the mit
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 10:12pm


Are you willing to deal with the wrongful death lawsuits and OSHA violations that are going to be coming your way? Will you accept the death of the elderly that you love for your freedumbs?

Nobody hates success.

WE hate and despise those who want to make money when other peoples lives are on the line. You know, people that are already alive.


Sat, 04/18/2020 - 10:17am

Maybe your next post can be in English.

Nobody is making anyone go to work and die. However, we ARE being made to stay home and lose our livelihoods.

middle of the mit
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 10:18pm

And why do you think it is YOUR taxes that pay them wages? In my reality, you pay for the tax breaks that BIG BUSINESS GETS and the rest of us liberals pay for the taxes that help those that big bizznizz screws over.

Hey! It fits with duane/obtuse theory.

Truth is whatever you perceive it to be. So you should perceive your taxes going to the bizznizzez that refuse to give you a raise while getting a tax break and the the rest of us liberals will pay the taxes that help you.

Sound like a good trade off?

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 10:17am

Except the bulk of the money the government (all levels) spends goes directly to people or to pay for their services and stuff - SS, SSD, Medicare, Medicaid food stamps, college aid etc. Somehow your theory that money not paid in taxes constitutes government expenditures is flimsy but if you insist how about the fact that our employers give us healthcare insurance without us paying income taxes on it?

middle of the mit
Thu, 04/23/2020 - 12:54am


If you would like your employer paid healthcare to be taxed like John McCain suggested? That is your right.

I think you would be better off if we had a national sales tax. And there was no employer health plan

You chose the employer based health plan. And how is it that you have to pay taxes on it?

NO one else does.

But if you paid a tax for health SHOULD get a raise because your employer wouldn't be paying for your healthcare. Do you think you would get that raise?

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 10:21am

Newsflash: Truth is NOT whatever you perceive it it be, despite what your liberty-hating gender studies professors told you.

Facts are stubborn things and they don’t care about your ‘feels.’

middle of the mit
Thu, 04/23/2020 - 1:01am

Did you not see the duane/obtuse/conservative paradox?

duane is the one that thinks that EVERYTHING including Truth, perception and reality are all up for what you perceive.

He doesn't understand that there are subjective truths, ie ( favorite colors, foods,countries, and even people) objective truths,( if I am on the East side of the street and you are on the west side and a bank on your side of the street has just been robbed after you walked 50yards away, and the robbers run right next to the car that I just parked.........who has the better perspective, and objective truth about what just happened?

And then we come to absolute truth.


Sat, 04/18/2020 - 10:49pm

I think he's being sarcastic

Stuttering Jack
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 8:19pm

Yeah, I read this same post on another five or six articles... you just go around pasting it because you are very proud of yourself and you want validation for your thoughts. As I understand it, you like the job that Whitmer is doing, you're happy others lost their jobs, you are proud to have voted for Whitmer, and you're happy that you're gaming the system because taxpayer money is paying you more than you made before. You're a sick puppy dude.

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 5:05pm

Perfect example of you being a part of the problem in this society. You hate success of other people and have no issue receiving handouts.

Fingers Crossed
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 8:22pm

Just hope there is much more testing and people treat this seriously, not like those reckless people pulling that publicity stunt in Lansing, with their racist flags, lack of masks and gloves handing out candy to children, blocking the hospital emergency entrance. What nasty people!

Closed Fist
Tue, 04/21/2020 - 11:27pm

Virtually everything you said was wrong. People are treating it seriously, especially those protesting. There isn't much more serious to people then their homes, college savings, retirement, and property, and they seem to be taking protecting those things very seriously. There were no racist flags, there was no 'handing out candy to children', and there was no blocking of the hospital emergency entrance (this hoax by the Governor has now been repeatedly debunked by the hospital and police and by pictures). I think it's rather nasty to come on here and tell a bunch of lies.

Let's try to learn about things before we talk about them. If the Governor sat down with these people and heard their concerns and showed compassion (instead of threatening them to make it worse), then maybe we could put in place bipartisan and reasonable solutions instead of the partisan and extreme actions currently being taken.

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 9:35am

Joe Biden says that he loves the manner in which Whitmer handled the crisis. Really? That statement alone shows how out of touch Biden is. Let's run some numbers.

Florida population is twice that of Michigan, and the elderly population in Florida is a larger percentage. The number of cases right now in Florida is about 27,000, while Michigan's is in excess of 30,000. They never tell us on a more accurate cases per 100,000 or some other measure of population. The death totals in Michigan is in excess of 2,000, while Florida registers around 700. You could show the same differences with other states. New York City has a larger population than Michigan.

So just who is doing a better job at protecting their State, Whitmer or DeSantis? Maybe Joe should look to choosing Gov. DeSantis as his running mate.

Thu, 04/30/2020 - 8:54pm

Florida was late to the game. It will be interesting to see how much worse it will get due to the differing philosophy in the State governments response?

A Yooper
Sat, 04/18/2020 - 10:39am

It's not rocket science people.
The virus is spread by water droplets in our lungs, throat and nose.
Breathing in a seated position, expels these droplets as far as 6 feet per second.
Coughing, sneezing, laughing, AND any action resulting in large volumes of air being expelled will carry these infected droplets even farther.
Smokers expel these droplets in their smoke so smokers are especially at risk of spreading the virus, especially after a deep inhalation and powerful exhalation. And most smokers I know, also cough a lot. And, their lungs are already compromised from smoking so if they get the virus, good luck as their lungs won't be able to deal with it all.

Just Dawn
Sat, 04/18/2020 - 10:48am

I just have to agree with the possibility that Michigan has to take it easy.
Proper Protection Prevents Poor Performance.
Let’s just hope we can get some more businesses open sooner rather than later