In Working Class Country, Shifting Views on Covid-19 and Its Vaccines

by Ari Pinkus March 02, 2022 Print

Beautiful Lake Missaukee in Michigan in February 2022. Photo by Brad Seger.

In Working Class Country’s Missaukee County, Michigan (pop. 15,052), Covid-19 has taken its toll in significant ways. Since the pandemic began, the close-knit county has had 2,878 cases and 59 deaths, according to USAFacts. Among those who died were Dave and Paul Ebels, brothers and community pillars. Their deaths in March and April 2021 deeply upset residents and spurred many to get vaccinated. As of late February, 52% of county residents have received one dose of the vaccine, and 49% are fully vaccinated, according to the Times Herald.

One of the newly vaccinated is Lake City’s former mayor, Brad Seger. I spoke to Seger about how he and the community have been coping with the pandemic, from mental health concerns to vaccinations, school disruptions, civic engagement, and keeping faith.

Community Culture

It’s a farming community in northern Michigan. And well, it’s traditionally been 75% Republican voting. It’s a wonderful community. It’s a very generous community. I mean, it’s a poor county, there’s certain parts that are very poor, but I guess the generosity of the people here is, well, it’s overwhelming to me a lot of times.

Dealing with Covid-19

I've seen very bad consequences. I’ve seen neighbors go against neighbors. Half the community didn't really believe in Covid. They have more and more when it started killing younger residents of the community.

But when it first started, it seemed to me half the community took it very seriously. And they locked down. The other half did not lock down; they went about their regular business.

But as the months have gone by, especially the people that locked down, I see they went from great, wonderful people to seeming angry all the time, because they're hermits. They just stay home and do nothing. They hardly have any social interaction.

I was the mayor until last November and I never saw anything like that. People would come in and be angry over the simplest of things with their neighbors. Yeah, it's been a horrible thing. It still is.

I'm not mayor anymore. I lost by 13 votes, no big deal. I did it for nine years. It was a wonderful job. It is a really small town. They paid me $100 a week, and I did a great job. But when Covid started, it just wasn't fun anymore. I had more and more people, whether they were in council, or coming in with their own personal expensive agendas. And I tried to explain this is tax dollars. We need a return on investment; we have to at least think that 70% of the city residents are happy with what we're doing here. To me, everybody just seemed to be changed.

Religion’s Role in Community

Saint Stephen's Catholic Church in Lake City, Michigan. Photo by Brad Seger.

Of course, they shut the churches down for a while, but they're all open now. There's a lot of churches in our community. It's a very religious community. But I'm not sure how the churches have helped.

I've always had faith in Jesus Christ and my faith has been where I didn't lock down. I was out and about with all my regular friends, and I showed up at all the council meetings. I was one that just felt, if it kills me, then; if it doesn't kill me, then it makes me stronger. I really wasn't afraid of Covid, especially in the beginning. I did not get my vaccines. And I had Covid in my house. I have children; they tested positive and their friends would be here.

You asked if the churches have much of an impact. I'd like to say yes. But I'm just not sure if they have had a big impact.

Brothers Who Lost Lives to Covid-19

Well to me, they're kind of superstars. They had the big Ebels hardware store and, of course, their brother is still alive. He had the grocery store right beside them. But the two that had the hardware store, they just had a great business. Every time I’d see them, they just seemed healthy, strong. And they were very well known to the community. They were just God-fearing, wonderful people. It was a big shock. And one was 52 years old and one was 57. So it was a shock that for two somewhat young gentlemen like that, Covid killed them.

Deaths’ Effect on the Community

There was great mourning. It was a very sad time. I will say the brothers were kind of like me. They didn't think Covid could really hurt them bad, let alone kill them. Any time I went out there during Covid, nobody was wearing masks. I guess it really wasn't mandatory but certainly was mandatory in our schools.

But in that farming community out there, I felt before the Ebels died, they didn't take Covid very seriously, but I believe they did after the two Ebels gentlemen passed.

Changing Mindsets and Behaviors on Vaccinations

A lot of people, including me, went and got their vaccines. You know, when [the brothers] passed away, again, I hadn't gotten my vaccines, and I still didn’t for several months after. But I certainly thought about it more. I'm 61 years old. So I just thought if it’s going to start killing people at that age…. And I always question myself, ‘Why are you not getting your vaccine?’ Certainly in the beginning, we don't buy a new model car off the lot. We just want to see how it's going to work out. Is it going to have lots of kinks in it?

I wanted to wait a certain amount of time just to see side effects or anything negative. Now the vaccines have been out and millions of people have gotten the vaccines. But when the Ebel boys died, yeah, that really made a lot of people think, and they went out and got their vaccines.

I had a few other friends in their 60s that passed from Covid. And, of course, I've heard of other people in other communities where it’s even killing people 39 [years old] and 40.

And I still was hesitant. When I was mayor, certainly people would come up to me and say, ‘Brad, have you had your vaccines yet?’ And I said, ‘No, I haven't.’ And they said, ‘Well, why?’

Yeah, I really didn't have much of an excuse. So I went and got it, and for personal reasons, too. One friend of mine at 66 years old was in the hospital, and two days before he died said he wished he would have got his Covid shots. So that was a big one too, along with the Ebels and lots of other people.

Boosters and Being Cautious

A lot of my friends took Covid seriously. Some had COPD in their lungs so they really didn't go anyplace but the grocery store masked up, and they're still taking it seriously. Oh, they got their shots right off the bat, and booster shots as soon as they were eligible.

They still don't go out to the area because at our school, our basketball games, volleyball games, nobody’s wearing masks and the gymnasium is full.

Vaccinations In and Beyond School

Some [students] but not many [are vaccinated]. Very few will wear masks since it’s not mandatory. And I'm quite sure it's not mandatory for school teachers to get their shots. I think a lot have since they've seen the studies that there really aren’t side effects and side effects are very, very rare. So I think more and more people got their shots as time went on. I mean, even some diehard guys that were not going to get their shots have gotten their shots now. Not all of them. But even the ones that are still adamant about not [getting them], they struggle with whether they should or shouldn't.

On Schools Closing and Reopening

When they shut the schools down for a while, I thought it was horrible. It was horrible for the children, the parents, and everybody. But I certainly understood; there's a lot of older teachers, same thing with the colleges. There's a lot of older professors and again, they like the online. Not that it's easier for them, which it may be a little bit, but I think they were scared of dying.

Schools have all been open for quite a while, and Covid’s rampant. I get the kids coming home all the time. It's interesting, though, for the children that play sports. Teachers and coaches certainly don't say don't get tested. But it's kind of known, please don't get tested, or we're not going to be able to play anymore.

My son graduated last year. He's at MSU. But both his football and basketball seasons got cut short, just because one kid went and got tested. He was with the whole team, so half the season was shut down.

It wasn't super long that [schools] were closed down, but I just remember the time. I got a 14-year-old, [who was] 13 last year. I mean, she'd want to fall asleep on the Zoom or she’d mute it. We’d get a call from the teacher and it was bad. I didn't lock my kids down. Any time they wanted to go with their friends and stuff, go. It was just a certain number of them that all hung out together. And I saw it wasn't killing children. We told them stay away from the older people and grandmas and grandpas, but the lockdown, the homeschooling deal, I thought it was horrible.

Talking to the school superintendents and principals, they had it very tough. It seemed half the community wanted to close the schools. The other half of the community were hollering this is not healthy for our kids. They're not learning anything.

Community Divides

I think [the divides are] easing. If you don't want to get your shot, I have no problem with that. I'm certainly not going to get ugly with you about that. Where some people were. I think that's eased up because a lot of people have gotten the shots. And then they know, too, that if they didn't get the shot, they can stay home. They don't have to go out and be around people who haven’t had their shots.

Residents' Concerns Now

Well, I think [they’re] still the same. You know, they want good roads and safe neighborhoods.

Civic Engagement

It does seem that more and more people are showing up to school board meetings, they're showing up to city council meetings, they're showing up to county commissioner meetings. Not lots.

But yeah, I've never seen so many people vote at our local election, as I saw last November. There was a good man running against me; he’s a friend of mine. I was very happy for him. And he did a political thing. He put signs everywhere and took out ads in the paper and stuff. But I was shocked at how many people came out and voted. And I thought I was going to get smeared. But it was a very close race.

I didn't really campaign much at all. We had three council seats open, too. I've never seen so many residents come out and vote. So yeah, people feel they can change things.

Issues Surfacing In Meetings

Well, again, this is a really small city. The population’s 837, according to Google from 2017. A certain number come in and want this and that. But that's not what the whole community wants.

Blight is a big one, where poor people have a camper in the city, and they use that camper to go locally, but it's not a really nice camper. [Some people] don't want that sitting in the yard. They want to make it into a Richie Rich community.

And that's the new mayor. He’s one of the richer people in town. He was born and raised here. But he came from a rich community when he was working. So they're going around, calling different poor people, saying you have to do this and that. I was against it; I certainly told them the city should never hire an attorney to go against these people. But that's a big one — they’re picking on the poor people. And we should never pick on the poor people. God frowns on that.

Searching for Hope

Brad Seger, former mayor of Lake City, Michigan, with his brown trout in April 2021. Photo courtesy of Brad Seger.

This summer there was hardly any Covid around at all. So I had hope mid-summer because we opened everything up. We had our Fourth of July celebrations, which we didn't have the year before.

But now with all these other variants coming, it seems like half the community is sick and just can't get better. I feel Covid is going to affect them forever — like they still have a cough, and just can't seem to get back to 100%, including me. I mean, I feel pretty good. But I still have a cough. I'm a cigarette smoker so is it because of cigarettes or Covid.

So hope for me and the community is kind of low, mainly because of Covid.

Turning to Faith

I pray a lot. And it's not just about Covid. But for a lot of people. I'm not afraid to die. So it's not like I pray that Covid doesn't kill me. But I do pray for other people's health.

I mean everybody's looking for just a little bit of peace on this earth. And that's what I try to push to anybody that I have conversations with. Just do unto others as you would do unto yourself. It's as simple as that.