Some Yoopers want to close Mackinac Bridge to stop the spread of coronavirus

Would closing the nearly 5-mile-long Mackinac Bridge prevent the spread of the coronavirus? Experts are skeptical.

March 22 update: Upper Peninsula confirms its first case

The Mackinac Bridge is about five miles long, among the longest suspension bridges in the Western Hemisphere. It’s the only thing connecting the Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula — where, as of early Thursday, no coronavirus cases had been confirmed among its residents even as the virus spread downstate. 

But some Yoopers fear that if it does jump the Straits, it would devastate rural communities in the Upper Peninsula already hard-hit by financial woes and weak healthcare systems. 

The solution? Close the Mackinac Bridge completely. 

Some took to social media over the past week with calls to halt traffic between the two peninsulas. Marie Bailey, a cook who lives in Ontonagon, said she tried to use Twitter to draw Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s attention to the issue, but with no success.

“Right now, we’re not seeing anything up here. And we kinda want to keep it that way.” — Upper Peninsula resident who wants to close Mackinac Bridge 
 

Bailey said she is concerned about her town’s large population of people who are 65 and older and at high risk for infection, exacerbated by the number of medical care facilities that have dwindled and moved farther away over the years. Closing the bridge to “unnecessary” traffic, Bailey said, could stop the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, before it reaches her area.

She isn’t the only Yooper concerned about the high at-risk population in her town. At 57 years old, Ellen Kornoelje said she is one of the youngest residents in Trout Lake Township, which has a median age of 62. Inadequate access to health care is also a problem there, Kornoelje said, as well as poverty. She is worried that the combination of those two issues could magnify the effects of a coronavirus infection.

Closing the Mackinac Bridge could halt tourists and visitors from downstate, who Kornoelje said stop in her town en route to places like Marquette or Tahquamenon Falls, from unintentionally infecting anyone above the Straits. 

“Right now, we’re not seeing anything up here,” Kornoelje said. “And we kinda want to keep it that way.”

Connie Litzner, mayor of Saint Ignace, said she believes slowing the flow of travel on the bridge is a good idea. But she has not had any discussions about halting it completely, and said such a move would be “drastic.” 

Residents in St. Ignace need the bridge for groceries, to get to their doctors or to work, Litzner said, and Saint Ignace’s librarians live in Petoskey.

Kornoelje said she too has thought about the potential problems, such as getting food and supplies. She suggested the Upper Peninsula could get around this by enlisting help from Christian ministries that specialize in flying supplies into towns.

As for economic consequences, Kornoelje and Bailey noted that much of the Upper Peninsula is already relatively poor, and pointed to the resilience and self-sufficiency of the residents as proof that the region could survive. Closing the bridge could help the community control the spread of the virus more quickly, Bailey said, thus allowing them to address the financial fallout sooner.

“We have already shown hospitality to thousands of snowmobilers, skiers and winter lovers from all over the world all across the Upper Peninsula,” Bailey said in an email. “I don't see how it hasn't been here already for months.”

RELATED:

But officials say there are no plans to close the bridge. 

James Lake, a spokesman for the Mackinac Bridge Authority, said a few discussions were sparked among staff after some residents asked if the bridge would shut down, but nothing grew from them. 

Closing the bridge would bring many critical industries on both sides to a halt, such as transporting food, propane, lumber and other bulk items. Many residents also use the bridge to commute to work. 

Others rely on the bridge to access healthcare in both peninsulas. According to Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Cranson, it’s common for people to come down to Petoskey for doctors’ appointments. 

“That would be very extreme,” Cranson said of closing the span. He noted the California Bay Area had yet to close its bridges despite having some of the highest numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. The economic impact “would be significant.”

A history of unintended consequences 

More than 4 million vehicles crossed the Mackinac Bridge in 2019, according to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, bringing in more than $23 million in tolls. On Wednesday, the Bridge Authority announced that it would stop taking cash toll payments in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Other borders have closed, with the United States and Canada agreeing Wednesday to close border crossings to nonessential travelers.

This isn’t the first time cutting off all outside traffic to curtail a pandemic has been proposed. It’s called “protective sequestering,” and was one of the measures the mining town of Gunnison, Colorado, took to escape the ravages of the 1918 influenza pandemic. 

Gunnison, a remote mountain town of about 1,300 people, shut down its schools and businesses after the local newspaper reported influenza cases spreading to nearby towns. Highways going into Gunnison were barricaded, and signs were placed warning drivers not to stop in their county. Residents could leave freely, but anyone coming back in had to be quarantined. 

The isolation rules were strictly enforced, as two Nebraskans discovered when they tried to bypass the barricade and were immediately arrested and jailed. 

But when the barricades were lifted after nearly four months, Gunnison was hit by a fresh wave of the influenza. More than 100 residents were infected, and several died.

“It just prevents the virus from circulating in your neck of the woods,” said Howard Markel, a historian at the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, which chronicled the lessons of Gunnison. “But as soon as you open the gates … the virus will circulate.”

Shutting down the bridge would ultimately be ineffective, Markel said, without closing the rest of the Upper Peninsula's borders. The peninsula shares a land border with Wisconsin and Canada, and a lake border with Minnesota.

Alex Navarro, Markel's colleague, said a bridge closure would also raise other security issues. Who would guard the border between the two peninsulas and with Wisconsin? If a community needed supplies, who would unpack shipments from downstate?

It could be done, Navarro and Markel said, if isolation started very early and was sustained for a very long time. But there may already be asymptomatic carriers in the Upper Peninsula (There was a report Wednesday of a Canadian woman who flew into a U.P. airport and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.)  

And the length of time required for an effective isolation would deal a severe economic and social blow to the region, Navarro said.\

“I don’t think those costs outweigh whatever small benefit you could get from protective sequestration.” 

Ashley Wong is a freelance reporter and UC Berkeley graduate. She has been published at the Center for Public Integrity, USA TODAY, The Columbus Dispatch and East Bay Express.

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

Plain text

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

Comments

Roxie Patten
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 12:22pm

Closing the International and Mackinac bridge and airports to nonessential traffic when this covid19 first hit lower Michigan would most definitely helped keeping it from coming into the upper peninsula.

Ryan Johnson
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 1:37am

I was thinking the exact same thing. I wished they would close the bridge. But then just today, Bayfield, County Wisconsin just got it's first case of Coronavirus. Bayfield county is about 45 minutes away from, Ironwood, Michigan. I really don't think there is any way to keep it from getting it into the Upper Peninsula since it so close to us now.

Elizabeth
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 2:41am

I do not wish for the Mackinac Bridge to be closed. The Canada Bridge is closed already and I do ask where would our food come from if we closed down the Bridge? Makes no sense to me. I have family below the Bridge and if I wish to leave for any reason to be with them, then I wish for it to be my right. Everyone can just remain cautious to protect themselves and others is what I feel the need to mention. Thank you, stay safe and well.

Kathryn
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 8:20am

Great article. I was one who helped flood Twitter to our local state and federal government members in Michigan earlier this week..
My thoughts were on MANDATORY testing / screening.
Would of liked to seen the conversation on MANDATORY screening. From government.
I really believe too many will come north early and head to their summer camps.
.Stay safe and keep up the great work on keeping yoopers informed. I check out bridge up twice a day for updates.
Iron mountain .

Jeffrey Kless
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 8:37am

They forgot to install a border fence with Wisconsin, launch patrol boats in Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron and close all airports.

Kathy
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 1:58pm

Yes, closing the Mackinac to all but essential traffic is a good idea for the UP. Groceries can be purchased in Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Other than purchasing groceries and going to medical appointments one shouldn't be out just traveling around. Any non-emergency medical appointments should be cancelled so having to travel from the UP to downstate for appointments should not be a hardship. If we can keep the flow of people coming from the affected areas downstate to the UP to a minimum if would greatly reduce the spread of the virus to the UP. For those living downstate there really is no reason to come up here right now. The snowmobile season is about over, and all our dine in facilities are also closed. For those living in the St. Ignac area, come on up to the Soo to purchase your groceries. We Yoopers are strong, resilient people, but this is not something we can combat without the help of the rest of the state. So, while we love you all to come up and visit, please stay below the bridge and help keep us Yoopers safe and healthy.

Cori
Sat, 03/21/2020 - 10:50pm

And tell me where do you think some of your groceries come Kathy? Even if you live in the Soo.

Let me tell you......warehouse in Chicago. How does it get to the Soo? In a Semi crossing the Mackinac Bridge. How do I know this? Well my husband delivers to the Soo and St Ignace in that semi truck that just crossed the bridge.

We are all concerned even those in the Lower Peninsula. And in the Upper Peninsula . I have ties to both places. I grew up in the Upper Peninsula and still have family there. And I live in the Grand Rapids area now.

So seriously think about where the groceries come from. It's all over the UNITED STATES.. how else would it get to one point to another. Just think about it. SERIOUSLY.

Frederico Smithelini
Fri, 03/20/2020 - 5:07pm

There is no stopping this virus, only slowing it down so the generally inadequate American medical system isn't overwhelmed. Flattening the curve of the parabola just extends the timeline. Figure over the next year or so around 70% of the general public will get the virus, a significant percentage may never have symptoms and about 1 to 3 percent will die. Someone explain geometric progression to noted accountant and currently Senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson.

Anonymous
Sat, 03/21/2020 - 11:41am

And the massive land border the UP shares with Wisconsin is no risk?

Jim
Sat, 03/21/2020 - 11:41am

Sounds so simple but as the article states, who is going to patrol the Wisconsin border. Social distancing is fine but there is no way to keep the UP corona virus free. Too late fellow Yoopers.

Anonymous
Sat, 03/21/2020 - 3:23pm

So only let the people that have to use the bridge go over. Shut it down from tourists and people trying to get away on vacation. This would help with the spreading of the virus.

Toyvo
Sun, 03/22/2020 - 8:58am

Travel is limited everywhere, we should do the same for the UP. There is enough beer and food to sustain Yoopers for months. If deer season opened in April, Yoopers could social distance from the rest of the world for years.

Terrylann
Sun, 03/22/2020 - 6:00pm

We have boarders with Wisconsin and Minnesota and they have Covid-19 in each so what makes you think the only threat is lower Michigan? Should we close all our boarders? Don't become hysterical! Staying indoors and washing hands as much as possible and using common sense is our best defense!