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.
“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.”
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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.