On a recent Friday, Toya Aaron was in the midst of her new weekend ritual: setting up for movie night in the finished basement of her Madison Heights home.
Before the pandemic, going to the local AMC theater was a favorite outing for Aaron and her 12-year-old son, Jordan. The potential health risk makes that problematic now, so she’s turned her basement into a home cinema, complete with a new 65-inch television and snacks that mimic a concession stand. On this night, the latter included big boxes of candy, a popcorn bucket, a cherry Icee for Jordan.
“I try to make the best of it,” says Aaron, a single mother. “One thing we love most is going to the theater.”
Toya Aaron, right, watches her church, "Spirit and Truth Ministries'" service with her son, Jordan, in the basement of her Madison Heights home on March 7, 2020. (Nicole Hester | MLive.com)
Watching movies in the basement is the least of changes in the past year for Aaron, whose life has been turned upside down by the pandemic.
There have been huge implications for her two jobs, one at a hospital and a side gig as a travel agent. It’s impacted her family responsibilities, her romantic relationship, her church life, her social interactions with friends and family.
There has been no silver lining of the pandemic, she said. Rather, it’s been a year filled with stress and heartache, difficult choices and loss.
Her family just buried a 47-year-old cousin who caught coronavirus last fall, aggravating an existing lung condition that eventually killed her. It was the fifth person that Aaron knew personally who died from the virus.
Aaron’s story is not usual.
Today marks a grim anniversary for Aaron and every other Michigander: It was exactly a year ago that the state confirmed its first two cases of coronavirus.
It was a year ago today that everything changed.
It wasn’t apparent at the time, of course. Few predicted on March 10, 2020, that we were entering one of the most deadly and disruptive periods in Michigan history.
The 16,000-plus deaths, more than Michigan deaths for World War II and Vietnam combined. The tens of thousands hospitalized. The hundreds of thousands sickened.
The closures of schools. The workplace disruptions and hundreds of thousands who have been laid off. The financial devastation for bars, restaurants and other businesses. The mask mandates.
It’s been a year of canceled weddings, graduation events, birthday parties, holiday celebrations, sports tournaments. A year where going to the grocery store or visiting grandma became fraught with anxiety. A year of no big funerals, no packing The Big House in Ann Arbor, no cruise vacations. No hugs.
But it’s also been a year in which people have learned how to adapt, said Stephanie Hartwell, a sociologist and the dean of Wayne State University’s College of Arts and Sciences.
And so we’ve had the drive-by baby showers, the drive-in commencement ceremony, winter dining around a fire pit, the Zoom cocktail hours and coffee klatches, the virtual doctor visits, the search for the perfect sourdough starter. The new embrace of board games, jigsaw puzzles, gardening, biking, nature walks, camping.
“Who knew we could be so flexible?” Hartwell said. “There will be ways in which we emerge better, more innovative, maybe more empathetic. But in some ways, this also has separated the country and it has shown our disparities.”
It seems almost certain that the pandemic has changed America, that it will serve as a historical dividing line, perhaps in the same way as World War II where life before the war was significantly different than life after.
“I think there were will be a new normal,” Hartwell said. “I don’t think we’re ever going back” to the status quo of February 2020.
Even once the pandemic ends, it seems likely more people will be working from home than pre-pandemic, more students will be taking virtual classes, more people will shop online.
But much remains uncertain.
What will be the lasting impact on the restaurant industry? Retailers? Downtown office space? Downtowns in general?
Will the pandemic permanently change how we travel? The wedding industry? The performing arts? Health-care delivery? Religious institutions? Will the boon in outdoor activities continue or be a temporary craze?
How will the pandemic reshape American family life? After a year of forced togetherness, will regular family dinners become more of a thing? Will young women be more reluctant to have children after witnessing the heightened tensions around balancing work and children?
“How things are going to be different, I can speculate in a number of ways,” said Joel Howell, a University of Michigan historian. “But know this: When all this goes away, we don’t wash our hands and say, ‘OK, fine, let’s go back to the way it was before.”
Lela Lantigua sits in an enclosed back porch in Franklin on March 3, 2021, while discussing what it has been like to attend school during the pandemic. (Nicole Hester | MLive.com)
The death of optimism
Hartwell isn’t just looking at the pandemic as a sociologist.
She’s also experiencing it as a college administrator worried about how the pandemic is impacting higher education, and as a mother worried how it’s affecting her teenage daughters.
It’s been a hard year on both fronts, she said.
“I’m a very, very optimistic person,” Hartwell said. “But the biggest lesson that I’ve learned this past year is that hopeful thinking doesn’t always work out. If you’re an optimist, you’re wrong.”
The higher education industry already was under stress, she said. Now the pandemic means it’s “changing faster than we can keep up.”
On the domestic front, the biggest adjustments have involved Hartwell’s daughters, Ella,16, and Lela, 13.
Before the pandemic, “I’d be in Detroit during the day and they’d be in school,” Hartwell said. “Now we’re on top of each other all the time.”
“This has revealed my weaknesses as a parent, every single of one them,” she sighed. “It’s revealed to me how hard parenting is, and I think I know things about my kids now that I never wished I knew.”
She worries about the pandemic’s impact on young people in general, the challenge of “having teenagers grow and become independent when they’re not allowed to do anything.”
Her daughters have had different experiences and challenges during the pandemic. Ella has had to do more virtual schooling, but she also has a part-time job, a boyfriend and a position on the high school girls’ hockey team that got her out of the house.
That all came to a crashing halt the last week of February when Ella’s boyfriend came down with COVID-19 and she had to quarantine. A few days later, Ella tested positive, too.
“Nothing like the ninth inning of a pandemic” to get infected, Hartwell said.
Meanwhile, Lela has had in-person classes through this school year, but she’s also spent a lot more time at home.
13-year-old Lela Lantigua stands in a window looking out to her backyard in Franklin on March 3, 2021. (Nicole Hester | MLive.com)
She said she enjoys spending more time with her family, particularly her mom. “We’re watching a ton of TV and we’ve become better cooks,” Lela said. “We’ve also found things to do outside the house, like there’s a bakery we discovered and this deli, now that we have time to research things.”
But the restrictions also can be “annoying,” Lela said. She misses going out with friends, playing lacrosse, going on trips, eating in the school cafeteria, seeing her relatives on the East Coast.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “But we’re kind of used to it. This is our life now.”
Gerd Hansma sees the pandemic through the lens of a 60-year-old Republican conservative who feels the pandemic is a manufactured crisis.
To be clear, “I don’t think it’s a hoax,” the Grand Rapids-area resident says. Hansma wears a mask outside the home and, as someone who had a very mild case of coronavirus last year, he regularly donates plasma for COVID-19 treatments.
Gerd Hansma shows the bandaid on his arm where he recently donated blood at the Versiti donor center in Granville on Feb. 25, 2021. (Nicole Hester | MLive.com)
But he “absolutely” thinks the response to COVID-19 has been overblown, and it’s hardened his cynicism about politicians, the medical community and the media.
Hansma questions the death count, suggesting those numbers are grossly inflated by people who died “with” COVID-19 vs. “of” COVID. (In 2020, the overall number of Michigan deaths increased 19% above the average for the three previous years. Adjusted for population size, it was the state’s highest death rate since 1929.)
He’s skeptical that hospitals have been overwhelmed. “Maybe a few,” he said, theorizing that probably was a result of staff layoffs.
He thinks closing bars and restaurants made no sense, maintaining people are more likely to get COVID-19 touching the merchandise at Costco versus sitting in their local pub. (Studies show people are most likely to catch COVID in an indoor space where people aren’t wearing masks.)
Hansma said he doesn’t know anybody who has died or been hospitalized for coronavirus. Moreover, he said, he had the H1N1 virus 11 years ago and coronavirus this past year, and his experience with H1N1 was much worse. He says both points support his contention that COVID-19 is a serious problem only for “the elderly and the infirmed.” (The 2009-10 H1N1 pandemic killed an estimated 12,500 Americans. The current death toll for COVID-19 is more than 500,000.)
“Given the fact that it disproportionately affects older people, there’s a lot better way to do it than lock down workplaces and schools and restaurants and things that people who are generally quite old don’t frequent,” Hansma said.
He’s not happy about the impact on his own life. Before coronavirus, Hansma - who is divorced and lives alone - had an active social calendar.
The owner of an agency that sells insurance benefit packages, Hansma is used to wining and dining clients. “I’ve had almost no entertainment expenses this past year,” he said.
Usually, “I go to concerts whenever I can. Sporting events. There’s women I occasionally go out with,” he said. “All that is just gone.”
During the spring lockdown, his twin daughters came home from college and lived with him for several months, which was nice, he said.
But for the most part, “there’s been loneliness” the past year, he said. “Although it’s easier to be lonely when you really can’t do anything.”
Hansma said he finds himself drinking more frequently. “I’ve probably gone from having three or four beers a couple times a week when I went out, to having a couple beers at the end of every day,” he said.
Pandemic life has “been extremely boring here, I have to say.”
Toya Aaron, left, cooks breakfast for her son, Jordan, in her Madison Heights home on March 7, 2020. (Nicole Hester | MLive.com)
The struggle to hold it together
For Aaron, the single mom in Madison Heights, it’s been a year of one challenge after another.
The hardships began immediately.
Aaron had just begun settling into a new job as volunteer coordinator at McLaren Macomb Hospital when Michigan confirmed its first cases of coronavirus on March 10, 2020.
“I had 177 volunteers. But they were all high-risk, over age 65, had health conditions, everything,” she said. “So I had to furlough all of them. I was in a new role with no volunteers, yet I had to come to work.”
McLaren reassigned Aaron to oversee food and other donations that came to the hospital as metro Detroit got slammed by COVID-19. “It was, like, one day, we got our first COVID patient, and when we looked up, we had a whole hospital full of COVID patients,” she said. “At that point, I realized that this is really real. We’re in the thick of it.”
Aaron’s side job as a travel agent also went into meltdown. “I can’t even count how many trips I had to cancel,” she said. “My phone kept ringing, and I wanted to cry every time.”
And, of course, her clients wanted refunds, which meant she not only lost the commissions - “that was supposed to be my extra money” - but she had the additional work of trying to get their money back.
Amid the job stresses, Aaron’s personal life also has been thrown into upheaval.
The same day she furloughed her volunteers, she learned Jordan’s school was canceling classes.
“As a single mom, that was the hardest thing, when they closed the school,” she said. “My son was 11 and he was pretty much alone by himself while I still had to come to work. My mom lives about a mile from me and my neighbors on either side would check in, so he knew to call my mom or the neighbors if there was a problem. But it was hard, leaving my son at home.”
Aaron said she’s lucky that her son is responsible and has kept up his grades during months of virtual schooling. But he doesn’t like being home alone and the fact she works at a hospital has made things worse.
“So here my son is saying, ‘Mommy, nobody will come over because you work in a hospital and they think you have coronavirus,’ she said. “Plus, he was fearing I was going to catch it and die, especially when people started dying that we knew.”
Toya Aaron, right, stands in the front door of her home in Madison Heights with her son, Jordan, on March 7, 2020. (Nicole Hester | MLive.com)
Meanwhile, Aaron has been doing all the grocery shopping and errands for her mother, a senior citizen who has lupus, an autoimmune condition that put her at high risk for COVID complications.
She ended a romantic relationship because the man she was seeing was still traveling and getting together with other friends, activities that Aaron worried put her own household at risk.
Church is a big part of her life, but her church hasn’t held in-person services since last March. “We’re doing everything online, which is good, but you do miss being around the people,” she said.
One bright spot of the past year was Aaron’s 50th birthday in September. The weather allowed for an outdoor party, and Aaron had several dozen people in her backyard. “I had a wonderful time,” she said.
Aaron is eagerly anticipating the end of the pandemic. “I believe things are getting better,” she said. “But it’s going to be awhile.” And she wonders about how the pandemic will have permanently changed society.
“My mom and I were just wondering if we’ll have to wear masks forever now,” Aaron said. For young children, “this could become their norm. They won’t know anything else. And one day, we’ll be telling them, ‘Hey, we used to walk outside and go to the mall without a mask.’ "