News Analysis: The Cultural Challenges of Covid-19 in East Lansing

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Raymond Holt for ELi

East Lansing's Mayor Aaron Stephens and Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg.

If you watch the national news about the Covid-19 pandemic, you see a fairly bifurcated battle about mask-wearing. But if you provide local news here, as the ELi reporting team does, you see a much more complex cultural landscape.

It is one involving young people desiring freedom, police who have been told generally to back-off enforcement, public health experts who are wary of using sticks instead of carrots, a relatively new university administration, and a very new City Council.

In our reporting here at ELi, we are seeing so much tireless leadership and good intentions. Nevertheless, East Lansing’s cultural landscape turns out to be one on which the virus is now growing like mold on agar.

The numbers of Covid-19 cases in East Lansing are now rising precipitously, particularly among young people aged 15-24.

The 48823 zip code now holds the record for the highest number of cases in Ingham County, edging out the next highest by over 25%. That next highest is Lansing’s 48911, which for a long time had the most cases and includes substantially more people in higher-risk subgroups, including African Americans.

Yesterday, Alan Vierling, the President of Sparrow Hospital, wrote in his daily update to all hospital caregivers that Sparrow labs have now seen the highest seven-day rolling average so far for their service area, which includes and extends beyond Ingham County.

“This alone,” Vierling wrote, “is cause for great concern.”

The seven-day test positivity rate at 5.6%, and “anything over 5% is indicative of a possible significant outbreak.” The positivity rates among young people are now in the double digits.

On Tuesday afternoon, ELi’s Emily Joan Elliott attended an Ingham County Health Department press event to bring our readers what Health Officer Linda Vail had to say in the face of MSU’s surging positive test numbers.

What will come after a spike of Covid-19 infections in healthy young people in East Lansing, Vail said, is that “sicker, older people will get it and die.”

In mid-August, Vail’s department instituted a new order limiting the size of outdoor gatherings in several student-heavy, near-university neighborhoods of East Lansing. No more than 25 people are allowed to gather outdoors in those areas.

The areas included are always party-prone, but as someone who lives in one of them – the Oakwood Historic Neighborhood, just north of Valley Court Park – I can report that parties have become much more frequent with MSU’s decision to end in-person classes. This happened in the spring, and it’s happened again this fall.

With little scheduled structure in their days, a notable proportion of our undergraduate neighbors seems to be treating day like night, and Mondays like Saturdays, in terms of drinking and loud carousing.

In fact, the max-25-person order appears to be what many young people are focusing on as if it is all that really matters. As a designated neighborhood leader who manages noise complaints, several times I have gone up to parties involving no masks, no social distancing, and a fair bit of bottle-passing and necking only to be told by these young renters, “There’s no issue because there are fewer than 25 of us here.”

People in my neighborhood – and probably others – are more hesitant than ever this year to call the police following nationwide outcries about policing overreach. The City Manager has promised there will be unarmed “Neighborhood Resource Specialists” for noise problems as part of “policing realignment,” but we’ve yet to see any. Some in our neighborhood are also hesitant to call because they know ELPD has only a four or five officers per shift and someone might need them for something more serious.

As their meeting this week, City Council discussed revision of the Disorderly Conduct code, struggling mightily with the question of how our officers should deal with the problem of “celebratory riots,” a term you might think an oxymoron if you didn’t live in the land where Tom Izzo is a demi-god (one who is using his powers to urge mask-wearing).

Some members of the Human Relations Commission – concerned with civil rights – believe Council should eliminate many of what one might call “party crimes” in East Lansing, lest they be prosecuted in biased ways. But Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg explained it’s pretty important to have a law outlawing throwing a couch on a fire when you live here.

Mayor Aaron Stephens, who just a couple of years ago was an MSU undergraduate running for City Council, has been working hard to personally visit parties, to encourage mask-wearing and social distancing.

He’s been trying to meet students on their own turf, as a near-peer, and he says he has seen “a lot of good behavior, too,” including students enjoying each other’s company around a fire pit while staying distanced, or watching a projected movie outside together, with distancing.

Gregg points out that seeing so many students together outside might be a good sign – because it means they’re not crowded together inside.

Stephens’ boots-on-the-ground engagement approach has had positive effects in spots. But the City’s and university administration’s actions have not been enough to convince the Greek system to agree to a moratorium on large gatherings.

When I talked with him yesterday morning, Stephens explained that MSU might in theory discipline a student if the student was cited under the County health regulations. But trying to obtain such a citation is serious logistical challenge.

Stephens told me yesterday that ELPD officers are now going to be writing citations for what East Lansing’s ordinances prohibit – loud outside noise, for example – and writing into the citation notes about poor behavior where public health is concerned. The hope is that passing these on to the university will lead to some exemplary disciplinary action that will scare others into better behavior of the sort that will reduce disease transmission.

The “stick” approach is not one public health experts usually recommend. In general, trying to threaten or punish people into healthy behavior just doesn’t work.

But at this point, year-round residents in East Lansing are ready for some sticks.

Wrote one ELi reader to us, “As a tax-payer in East Lansing, I feel that my city has been taken away from me. I do not feel safe walking around downtown amidst people who are not wearing masks. The law says they must, but they don’t. I can’t enjoy the city where I live and pay taxes. Importantly, I cannot support the downtown businesses under these conditions.”

While not all those wandering and partying maskless are MSU students, it does seem likely that any “stick” approach is going to require coordination with MSU. But MSU does not have a well-developed system for dealing with antisocial behavior off-campus, and its President – while coming from the very relevant field of Infectious Disease – is still relatively new and facing an unprecedented situation in a university already weakened by the Nassar scandal. (The problems MSU is facing economically are at least as big a challenge as the public health risks.)

Stephens and Gregg find themselves struggling daily with the problems of triangulating state and local health regulations, calls for enforcement amidst calls for major policing reform, and thousands of young people who feel invincible and untethered.

Frustrated, Gregg says, “We are looking for sticks at this point. We have tried creating a framework for safe, responsible behavior by defining what that looks like and we aren’t getting the level of compliance that we need to contain this the way it needs to be contained.”

Stepping things up, Gregg says that now first-time violations of the 25-person-limit will result in a cease-and-desist order from the Ingham County Health Department – something that might help MSU bring follow-up disciplinary action.

Stephens and Gregg are also working with the County Board of Commissioners on an ordinance that, in Gregg’s words, “will allow our officers to write civil infraction tickets that would carry a monetary fine” for health regulation violations.

Meanwhile, the president of Sparrow Hospital is thinking about what happens if the vulnerable start to flood his ER.

Yesterday, he ended his message to Sparrow providers with a gentle call to duty:

“Please be mindful at all times of our needed dedication to take care of ourselves and those around us. We remain the best defense against the spread of disease. As always, wear a mask and a save a life.”

Disclosure: Alice Dreger’s spouse is Aron Sousa, Interim Dean of MSU’s College of Human Medicine and an internal medicine physician who sometimes works at Sparrow Hospital.

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