Germany is widely believed to be one of the few countries with the Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis under control. In contrast, the world has watched how America has handled the Coronavirus crisis and collectively cringed.
Of course, not all American states have responded to the pandemic in the same way. Governor Gretchen Whitmer of my home state of Michigan has shown strong leadership in the face of adversity. She has not only faced down conservatives threatening her with guns at our state capitol, but also the President of the United States and his dangerous ignorance.
Up until just this past week, Michigan appeared to be one of the few states with a declining rate of infection. Then, as things often do during an ongoing crisis, the situation rapidly changed. Michigan is now experiencing a sharp uptick in Coronavirus cases; just like we are experiencing here in Germany.
This week, I asked three friends to tell me about how the COVID-19 pandemic is playing out in Michigan. What are the laws and guidelines, if any, and are most Michiganders following them responsibly?
Here’s what they had to say, and how it compares to what’s going on here in Germany.
When did the Coronavirus lockdown start?
My husband and I were in Hamburg when parts of Germany started implementing measures to halt the spread of the Coronavirus.
When we returned to Wolfsburg on March 14th, large attractions like the Autostadt were already shutting down. A few days later, everything was closed except grocery stores and other essential shops like bakeries.
Liz, from Yes/No Detroit: In Michigan, it basically began in mid-March. My last day at my office was March 13th, and at the time I wasn’t sure if I’d be back that Monday or not; instead, I’ve been working from home since then.
Were the restrictions enforced?
In Germany, the restrictions were enforced by officials and the police. A week after everything started shutting down, our local police began driving around in the evening, playing a pre-recorded message that told everyone to stay inside.
Grocery stores tightly controlled their occupancy limits. It was forbidden to meet with those outside of your own household, unless they needed assistance. Anyone caught violating those rules faced a heavy fine.
Liz: At the beginning I don’t think it was really “enforced,” because it’s hard for the police to pull someone over, for example, if they don’t know where you are going—you could be going to the grocery store, or visiting elderly parents, and maybe not just out to be out, if that makes sense.
Dani, from The Nerdstead: The Coronavirus restrictions seemed to be enforced right away in Michigan. I had heard from one of my friends that her husband was pulled over on March 24th while on his way to work to be questioned why he was out. He is a store manager at a hardware store here, so he was still considered essential.
Did you see anyone purposely ignoring the restrictions during the early months of April and March?
I didn’t see anyone trying to break the rules in Germany, even during the early months. You would occasionally see videos on social media, but for the most part, everyone was following the restrictions.
Jenni Z, from Flint, Michigan: Not much in the early days, but after about 3 weeks, people began getting restless. People were visiting grocery stores out of boredom, for example.
Have restrictions at grocery stores become lax since mid-March?
In an effort to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, stores in Germany had strict capacity limits and one-way entrances and exits in March and April.
There were signs by the shopping carts and entrances, stating that shopping “isn’t a family activity.” In the first few weeks, parents who did their shopping together and brought their children along were turned away from some supermarkets.
Wearing a mask quickly went from strongly suggested in the first few weeks of April to being required by law on April 20th.
Since the beginning of June, it has seemed like anything goes as long as you are wearing a mask. I personally feel like people aren’t maintaining proper distance from one another when they’re not waiting in a checkout lane. If I waited for people to get out of the way so I can grab something from a shelf, for example, I would be waiting all day. People don’t recognize that you’re trying to maintain distance and go around you to grab what they want.
And in Michigan?
Liz: No. If anything, the rules were more lax. I shopped at Meijer in early March and it was a bit crazy, because everyone was stocking up on essentials—my parents made me go to ALDI with them and buy some canned goods and stuff like pasta, things that don’t go bad that quickly. I’d say the rules are stricter now—a lot of places enforce the mask rule, and have one-way aisles.
Jenni: Yes, rules were stricter. After a few weeks of contagion increasing, superstores, like Walmart, began enforcing occupancy limits and other restrictions. These days, employees at high traffic stores are no longer consistently wearing face coverings, or they’re wearing them, but improperly (e.g. nose out). I would estimate 80% of shoppers are not following one-way foot traffic directions.
Dani: Now, it seems like only half the people you run into are wearing masks. Store employees aren’t wearing them half the time, either. It’s as if COVID-19 is all over, apparently!
Did shops experience any shortages of essential items?
During the first few weeks of the Coronavirus crisis, German comedy shows and social media were dominated by public shaming of Hamsterkauf, which is the act of buying more than you need.
Our grocery stores quickly ran out of flour, yeast, make-your-own-bread kits, and (of course) toilet paper.
Sadly, Michigan was not spared from the Great Coronavirus Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020.
Liz: In the first few months, there was a shortage of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Also paper towels and napkins—any paper goods, for some reason. Now, there’s no more toilet paper shortage, but hand sanitizer and wipes are still hard to find.
Dani: As soon as the Stay at Home order was announced, toilet paper, face tissues, paper towel were the first things to go. Well, that and hand sanitizer and cleaning products.
Jenni: Entire aisles were cleared out of merchandise. Paper goods and cleaning supplies were virtually impossible to find, but so were food staples.
What’s still hard to find now, besides hand sanitizer?
Liz: Stuff like mozzarella sticks, pizza bites, etc. are sometimes hard to find. We’ve written a few articles for my job as a snack food magazine editor that support these findings. ALDI has these frozen mini corn dogs that I like and I still haven’t seen them in-stock for a few months now.
Dani: Meat products were harder to come by for a bit after some meat plant workers were found to have Coronavirus. Since then, meat prices have gone up a couple of dollars.
Is anything still out-of-stock in Germany?
As of right now, everything seems to be well-stocked. I also haven’t noticed any dramatic price increases. The last thing I remember being in short supply was yeast, but that was over a month ago.
In the news, we saw that there were protestors with guns at the capitol in several states, including Michigan. Did you witness any other protests or hear of any other violent reactions to the restrictions?
Jenni: I did not personally attend or witness these protests against the Coronavirus safety measures first-hand, but I have seen reports on the news. Patrons began to become violent when rules were enforced. In the Flint area, at least two security guards were shot for enforcing mask policies. At that point, stores began to relax enforcement of face covering rules, despite the governor passing state orders requiring masks in public.
Dani: There was some serious backlash against wearing a mask for some reason and I know stores were worried about enforcing [the mask requirement] because of the violence that was going on.
We’ve gotten the impression in Germany that wearing a mask has become “politicized” in the US. Is that true?
Liz: Yes, it is definitely politicized because Trump refuses to wear one. I do know a lot of Republicans wearing them as well, but some people feel like they don’t need to because it somehow doesn’t affect them (i.e., they’d only be doing it to help others).
Dani: Yes, it’s very politicized. The only conservative leaning folks I know of that support wearing masks are those live with someone who is, or are themselves, immunocompromised.
And in Germany?
We also had some protests in Germany against the COVID-19 restrictions. Some people fear that the current restrictions might enable the government to take more drastic measures in the future, during a non-crisis. I think these protestors are reasonable; especially because they maintain proper social distancing.
Unfortunately, we also have the standard issue conspiracy theorists who believe ridiculous things about Bill Gates and vaccines.
The difference is that they (thankfully) aren’t armed. If they did have a weapon, it would be completely illegal and the police could arrest them.
We also have a few people actively trying to not wear their mask in public buildings. While a few get away with it long enough to snap a selfie for Instagram or Twitter, they can be fined for not wearing a mask if they’re caught. Store employees aren’t afraid to enforce rules because, unlike in America, hidden weapons are the exception and not the norm.
When did non-essential businesses start opening up, and what are the restrictions currently in place?
Shops began to open up again, very slowly, on April 20th in Lower Saxony. Other German states started loosening restrictions at the same time, or a bit later. Customers were (and still are) required to wear a mask and businesses keep track of how many people are in their shop by making them use a shopping cart or basket, or carry around a token of some kind. For example, a plastic shoehorn in shoe shops.
Liz: Those types of stores were actually open for the first month or two in Michigan, and then Governor Whitmer shut them down. They reopened shortly after. For gardening, it’s fine because a lot of those types of centers are outdoors. For clothing and other “non-essentials” I am still not sure they should be open—I drove by the Somerset Collection (mall in Troy, MI) the other day and it was packed. I myself will not be going to any malls for quite a while.
What about restaurants?
Restaurants didn’t open up in Lower Saxony until the end of May. They are still only allowed to operate at half capacity. To prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, workers must wear masks at all times and patrons can only remove their mask when seated at a table. I ate indoors at a restaurant exactly once since the restrictions were eased. We stick to cooking at home or getting carry-out.
Liz: A lot of places like Ann Arbor have been shutting down Main St. during the weekends, so that patio seating can be extended into the street, which is a good idea.
I have only been doing takeout so far, because I have a compromised immune system (Crohn’s), and unfortunately won’t be dining in for a while, but I’m considering patio dining at some point. I did pick up takeout at a restaurant in Ferndale, MI the other day, which has a dine-in section too, and I noticed they were only using half of their booths, which was good—every other booth had a sign that said something like “closed for social distancing” on it.
Dani: Restaurants are open here and I’ve only been to a restaurant once since they’ve been reopened. They are spacing tables apart and all restaurant workers were seen with masks. About a third of the customers I saw were wearing masks, but many didn’t seem to care.
Was there (or is there still) a ban on how many people can gather in a group? Did it include on private property?
At the beginning, restrictions were, well, strict in Germany. People who violated the rules and were caught were charged hefty fees. Yes, even if they were meeting on their private property. Slowly, starting in late April, restrictions were eased. First, you could meet as a group of four, then six, and now you can meet in a group of up to 10 people.
Liz: Yes, and I believe it includes private property too. At the beginning the numbers were very small, I believe you could have 10 people for an outdoor gathering. Last I heard, you can have 10 people for an indoor gathering and 100 people for an outdoor gathering.
Dani: When the stay at home order was first in place, we weren’t allowed to have public gatherings at home or outside with any number of people. We were only allowed to spend time with those already in our household. I had heard about police being called during some cookouts where people were gathering in groups, but I don’t think I heard of anyone being fined.
Jenni: To my knowledge, these restrictions were not actually enforced and no repercussions were found for violators. My mother’s next-door neighbors were frequent violators and my husband attended a few outdoor social distance gatherings.
Are events like concerts and comedy shows happening again, or are they all still cancelled/postponed?
Liz: I had tickets to four or five concerts this summer, and all have been postponed. However, I got an email from the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor that said concerts will be starting up again, which concerns me a little since that’s a small concert space. Hopefully they are at least doing 50% capacity.
Dani: There are talks that sporting events might be played with no crowds or even limited crowds. We aren’t exactly sure how they are going to proceed with music and other shows yet.
Jenni: There will be a public fireworks show for 4th of July in Bay City, but I’m not sure how the city plans to handle crowd control. This is an outdoor event that historically sees many people remaining in their own vehicles to watch.
Is there anything going on in Germany?
Our soccer teams have been playing again for about a month now, but they’re playing to empty stadiums. Otherwise, all events are cancelled, including Oktoberfest in Bavaria. We still don’t know yet if there will be Christmas markets this year, but it’s not looking promising.
When was the first time you socialized face-to-face with others since the pandemic began?
The first time I met up with friends was in May, after the restrictions were loosened. Since then, we’ve met up with people every other weekend, but only outdoors and in very small groups.
Liz: Last Saturday! A friend had a get-together at a park in Livonia. She kept it small, and there were only nine of us; she found a picnic table when she got there. We all brought masks but it was about 90 degrees out, and pretty hot, so none of us ended up wearing them. I tried to sit a little bit apart from the group though.
Dani: It was probably a month in before I saw anyone, other than for deliveries. I am a beekeeper, so I had to go out to set up my bee colonies in the middle of April. I saw the owner of the farm at that time, but otherwise I was staying at home.
Jenni: I have been providing some assistance to friends. For example, I have taken a lupus patient who was released from the hospital with blood clots at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis to their appointments. We both wear masks when she’s in the car and I wipe everything down with a bleach solution when she gets out of the car. My first purely social in-person visit occurred Thursday, June 18. We remained outside, but unmasked.
How do you feel Governor Whitmer and President Trump have handled the COVID-19 Crisis?
Dani: I feel like Governor Whitmer has done such an amazing job, especially under fire from Trump and conservative folks that don’t think that the Coronavirus is real. Trump has done nothing but make the situation worse. He was threatening to withhold help because our Governor refused to be “appreciative” when he hadn’t done anything and she was rightfully critical. We would have had a lot less deaths if anyone had been in charge other than Trump.
Jenni: I believe Governor Gretchen Whitmer is doing an excellent job, despite tremendous adversity. Our president has made active attempts to discredit her, harm her reputation, stand in her way, and withhold essential aid and PPE from the state.
Liz: I think Governor Whitmer did a great job, and continues to do so. I won’t get into my feelings on Trump but I definitely am not a fan. His administration has not been handling the Coronavirus pandemic well at all, in my opinion.
And German leadership?
I’m grateful that we have excellent leaders here in Germany. Angela Merkel knows how to handle a crisis. The speech she gave towards the end of March was seen around the world and those from countries lacking real leadership looked to her for guidance.
I have no love for Markus Söder, the conservative Minister President of Bavaria, but it’s clear he did an good job leading his state through the worst of the pandemic. While other minister presidents were floundering on restrictions and how to handle future events and festivals, Söder had already announced Oktoberfest was cancelled.
How was the lockdown for you, personally? Did it make you feel safer or do you feel it was too restrictive/went too far?
Liz: I think it definitely was restrictive, but I thought our governor did a good job. I know Cuomo, the governor of New York, has been doing well too. So, for me, the lockdown made me feel safer, and I appreciate that people have to wear masks in stores too (or at least they should).
Dani: The Coronavirus lockdown was mentally taxing. I mean, I am more of an introvert as a person, but it was difficult not to be able to leave the house much. I know I wasn’t alone in this, but I was having CRAZY vivid dreams due to the social deprivation. It definitely made me feel safer, but I was also scared that it came to this point where we needed to take shelter in our homes. It felt a bit apocalyptic at times. I’m just glad we had a leader in our state that takes the medical and scientific communities seriously, otherwise it could have been so much worse here!
Jenni: I believe the lockdown was absolutely the appropriate action. If anything, I feel restrictions didn’t go far enough. It has had a devastating financial impact on me personally. I work for the public schools, which closed before anything else on March 19. I have yet to receive any unemployment benefits or COVID-19 relief money. We were able to defer two months of payments for both of our cars, we saved a significant amount of money on fuel for my husband’s car (he drives 40 miles each way for work), and I have still become dependent on my mother to loan us money to get through.
As for me…
In the beginning, when we didn’t know a lot about COVID-19, I did feel like everything was an overreaction. I followed all the rules, but in true American fashion…I didn’t like the feeling that my “freedoms” were being restricted. Then, I learned more about Coronavirus; not just how it spreads more easily than the flu, but also the horrifying effects it has on people. I not only don’t want to be sick, I also don’t want to be the reason someone else gets sick.
So, I feel the restrictions were just right in Germany and also that they loosened restrictions a little too soon.
Liz is the owner of the website Yes/No Detroit, where she talks about the best and worst of entertainment and food in the Metro Detroit area and beyond. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram at @yesnodetroit.
Dani is a beekeeper and homesteader from the Detroit Suburbs. You can follow her adventures in homesteading on her Facebook page, The Nerdstead. Check her out on Instagram and Twitter at @theoldnerdstead.
Jenni is a really cool gal from Flint, Michigan and someone I’ve known since High School. She doesn’t have a website or social media page of her own; so, we’d like to use this space to ask you to consider donating to Black Lives Matter.