Raymond Mahaffey, aka Chef Ray, has been running the kitchen at Timber Charlie’s Family Restaurant in downtown Newberry, Michigan for 16 years now.
He’s your man if you’re craving the Giant “Yooper” Pretzel or “The Two Hearted” sandwich (a hoagie piled high with shaved prime rib, Swiss cheese, mayo and fried onion,) popular with locals and tourists in town to snowmobile or see the breathtaking Tahquamenon Falls.
Yet even as COVID cases in the area have spiked the last few weeks, Mahaffey’s become a bit of an odd man out. That’s because he’s vaccinated.
“Out of 30-some people that work [here] typically at one time during the summer, I am the only person who's vaccinated, really,” Mahaffey said Thursday. “And that's because I’m a disabled veteran. And so the VA got a hold of me and said, ‘You need to go ahead and get this done.’”
Case counts are rising, but vaccinations rates are low
Fewer than 2,000 people (or 35% of all residents) here in Luce County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Just 40% have had at least an initial dose.
And even in the U.P., where all but one county went for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, that makes Luce something of an outlier compared to its neighbors. (In Alger County, 57% have had initial shots; Mackinac’s at 56%, and Schoolcraft’s at 52%.)
“We saw that same hesitation when we would hold drive through testing events last summer and last fall in our counties,” said Kerry Ott, public information officer for the Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft (LMAS) health department. “And it was always, our slowest one was Luce.”
Now cases are rising in Luce, with 30 added in just the last week, Ott said, and test positivity rates are at 29%, according to the most recent state data. Things got more complicated last week when the state lifted the mask mandate for fully vaccinated people, in accordance with CDC guidance.
“A lot of people are using the phrase, ‘I identify as fully vaccinated’ and taking their masks off," Ott sighed. “I’m not kidding. ...They’re not vaccinated, but they’re going to take their masks off.”
But she’s telling local businesses there’s not much they can do, beyond making a “good faith” effort.
“We're just repeating what is in the governor's orders. We're not asking for people's [vaccination] cards. We're just asking for them to self attest their vaccination status. And if they say yes, we're telling the businesses, ‘Then take them at their word and move forward.’”
And it’s not just the customers, Ott said.
“I have another business that's got concerns because they have staff that they know are not vaccinated, who now are coming to work without their masks on, [saying] ‘Oh, yeah, I am.’ So it’s difficult.”
“We can’t wait to get it over with”
Still, Mahaffey, the chef at Timber Charlie’s, isn’t all that worried about COVID.
“Ultimately, it’ll all work itself out,” he said. “It’s time to let nature take its course.”
In a county of just over 6,600 people, where only 3 residents have died from the virus, it can feel like the cure is worse than the disease.
Because while Mahaffey says his restaurant is “blessed to be open,” they’re spending a small fortune on “extreme sanitization” protocols. And pandemic-era unemployment benefits are keeping a quarter of his staff home, he believes, even as worker shortages squeeze the service industry.
It’s been too high a price to pay for something that’s just another version of the flu, Mahaffey says.
“Can you imagine if they said, ‘OK, we're going to close the school for three months, and the kids are going to suffer, because guess what? Somebody got the flu,’” he said. “...We got little kids in school that are passing [the virus] around, and they're as healthy as can be, but they've tested positive.”
(In truth, while children generally have a less severe course of the virus than adults, they can and do get very sick. Michigan saw a record number of children as young as infants hospitalized during the recent spring surge. And the state has confirmed at least 115 cases of MIS-C, a rare inflammatory illness that can be life-threatening. While fewer than 5 Michigan kids have died from it, 80% of cases had to be admitted to the Intensive Care Unit.)
“There is no reason [for this] a year later, with the numbers being so small [here],” he said. The restrictions have “been nothing but political. It’s been crazy. And we can’t wait to get it over with.”
Some believe vaccine is government conspiracy
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories about the vaccine are running rampant, Ott says.
“I think the chief concern is that it is a conspiracy to reduce population. I see that one a lot, that the vaccines are tailored in such a way to create infertility, in order to control the world population,” she said.
Another popular one: that the vaccine will somehow change your DNA. (It won’t.)
Sometimes Ott can have a productive conversation about those concerns, she says. And sometimes she can’t.
“Some of them, [it’s] just because they want to get into a fight. And you can sense that very, very quickly within a comment or two, that I'm not going anywhere with this person, and I'm done. And I just stop the conversation.”
But she estimates about 25% of the residents she hears from are genuinely trying to sort fact from fiction.
“They're afraid because they hear so many different messages,” Ott says. What’s been helpful is pointing to people they know who’ve gotten the vaccine and are fine, or have even gone on to deliver healthy babies.
“We need to understand how people are feeling,” she said. “And that’s been the hardest barrier for us to overcome, is the false information that really is so prevalent in our communities.”
“Nobody is coming to help us”
But skepticism towards the government is well-earned here. Residents say their tap water “smells bad and doesn't taste good,” says Carol Stiffler, editor and co-owner of the local paper, the Newberry News. Municipal officials insist the issue isn’t at the treatment plant.
“When they did a scope of the [water] pipes, there were still wood pipes in use. And so people are getting this nasty colored, nasty smelling water. I don't drink it in the office...because it’s widely called not drinkable. But the town says that's because of your pipes, not our pipes. So a lot of people are having their pipes replaced, but that's expensive and not everybody can afford it.”
The city says it needs to raise water rates in order to fix the system, Stiffler says.
“People are saying, ‘Why would I want to pay more for water I can’t drink?’ And they have all kinds of valid complaints.”
That distrust goes back to the 1990s, when the state shut down the Newberry Regional Mental Health Center, the area’s largest employer.
“We think Luce County is, by and large, overlooked financially,” she said. “We don't see that we're heavily considered [in Lansing,] that our issues are valued. We have one of the smallest populations in Michigan for a county, and we don't think help is on the way. So we think for ourselves. And in this case, we've thought for ourselves, and we decided we don't trust the information [about the vaccine.]”
Stiffler, however, does trust the science behind the COVID vaccine. She’s fully vaccinated. And she’s tried to keep a focus on the pandemic in her coverage, even as pandemic fatigue’s intensified.
But even that can be difficult when local resources are slim, she says.
“I told people [in the paper] the B.1.1.7 variant is here. [But] there’s been no more reported cases of it from the state, because they are simply not testing for it, due to how difficult it is. So now people are putting it aside like, ‘They made a big deal about variants, and now I don’t hear anything about it.’ Because there’s nothing I can report. So it’s very frustrating.
“So now I sort of just don’t talk about variants, because I don’t think it matters what variant it is. What matters is that it’s here, it’s a real threat, and you need to get your vaccination.”
The plan: win over the merely hesitant
Kerry Ott isn’t giving up on these vaccination rates. Both pharmacies in Newberry are now offering the COVID vaccine, she says. They’ve added clinics for those 12 and over. They’re doing local radio and newspaper interviews, and blasting social media with updates.
Overall, the strategy here is similar to the rest of the state: move away from the big mass clinics. Make the vaccine more accessible. Ott visited one county further south where they were doing vaccinations at the farmer’s market - that’s the kind of thing that might work, she says.
“So we’re looking at those kind of unique [opportunities, where people think] ‘Man, I haven’t bothered to call, I haven’t bothered to get an appointment. I’m here shopping for lettuce, might as well just get it.”
It may be slow going. It may take more people getting sick in the months to come, or being able to see more neighbors and friends get vaccinated.
“It's hard,” Ott said. “There's a lot of shouting in the world right now, even on social media. You know, all caps. And you know these people, they’re responding with what suits how they feel. But let’s make sure we’re responding based on accurate information. And we are struggling with that up here. But one by one, we’re going to keep vaccinating.”