Living in a Detroit virus hot spot, ‘you have to be smart’

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

A forlorn string of shops and restaurants in northwest Detroit last week bore witness to what has become a familiar sight — a funeral procession.

The white hearse and three cars left Swanson Funeral Home and ambled along McNichols Road, passing the one place that has remained busy, Sinai-Grace Hospital.

Residents know why the hospital is bustling and the funerals frequent.

"Heroes Work Here" is posted outside Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit on April 23, 2020.

They know because they live near a three-mile strip of McNichols that has been ravaged by the coronavirus. In the most infected city in Michigan, they live in what might be the most infected part of Detroit.

The 1,410 cases of COVID-19 in the two ZIP codes — 48221 and 48235 — account for 16% of the number in Detroit, according to city statistics.

“It’s alarming,” said Detroit Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. “Even the top doctors don’t know how it’s spread or how to combat it. A lot of questions remain.”

Another unanswered question is why the disease has seemingly metastasized among the 22,000 residents in the quiet, middle-class district. McCalister and other officials aren't sure but have some theories.

Among them: Dense neighborhoods allow much interaction between people. The area holds three nursing homes, where 84 occupants have the disease and nine have died, according to city data.

But Denise Fair, the city's chief public health officer, has a different take. The high numbers along the McNichols corridor might just show that more residents are being tested for the disease, she said.

Still, her office is trying to get to the bottom of it. Epidemiologists are working 16-hour days gathering and analyzing data about how the virus was spread, she said.

“We are doing everything that we can,” Fair said.

A recent visit to the besieged neighborhoods found a lot of ambivalence.

During the day, cars were parked in driveways and few people were on the street. No groups of people were gathered at the four parks. Residents appeared to have been following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s admonition to stay inside.

Then again, it was windy and cold, even snowing a little. Also, the parks’ basketball rims had been removed to discourage gatherings.

Some of the intrepid souls venturing outside wore masks. Others didn’t.

Kendall Wilson, barefaced and working on his 2011 Ford Fusion, has lost an uncle and cousin to the virus. But he wasn't worried. He said he’s young, 26, and in good shape.

As for passing it to his mom, with whom he lives, Wilson said he washes his hands constantly.

“You have to be smart. You try to take whatever precautions,” he said.

Bagley is in the 48221 ZIP code, one of the ZIP codes with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

The neighborhoods, which include Bagley, are ringed by shops and restaurants on McNichols, Livernois Avenue and Seven Mile.

While the commercial strips are drab, the homes behind them aren’t.

Small brick homes sit shoulder to shoulder on tree-lined streets. The colonial-style and Tudor Revival houses are old but kept up.

Bagley, which was a Jewish enclave in the 1940s, remains one of the most stable neighborhoods in the city, real estate agents say. It’s a more affordable version of University District to the east.

Karlton Akins, 40, president of the Bagley Community Council, stands near his home on W. Outer Drive in Detroit on April 23, 2020.

Karlton Akins, president of the Bagley Community Council, a neighborhood group, said members have tried to get outside, walking, riding bikes, working in their yards.

"Bagley is an active and tight-knit community," he said. "We have just been trying to stay connected."

Fighting doubt

Earlier this month, city officials released a map showing the location of residents with COVID-19. The highest cluster of cases were shown in yellow and the next highest in red.

The colors made it look like a three-square-mile swath of northwest Detroit was on fire.

And in the middle of the blaze is Curtis Avenue and Meyers Road. The intersection holds two homes, a community center and a church.

The city of Detroit is breaking down COVID-19 cases by ZIP code.

A food bank distributed items at the Northwest Activities Center. Residents waited in their cars as volunteers loaded 25 pounds of groceries into their trunks.

Across the street was the Trinity Church of Holiness.

“Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death,” proclaimed its sign.

But the disease has co-pastor Aaron Bird nursing doubts of his own.

The sign outside Trinity Church of Holiness in Detroit reads, “Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death.”

The church, one of many in the neighborhood, sits empty as he conducts services, Bible study and Sunday school online from his home.

He is worried not just about the virus but its consequences.

It has left people idle in their homes, where they have time to ruminate negative thoughts, he said. They become restless and discouraged, fighting with each other.

Bird sees old Lucifer behind it.

“I’m not going to let fear get in,” he said. “Whatever the devil sends my way, I’ll send right back.”

He uses his online talks to exhort church members to fight through the dark days.

Good and bad days

The anchors of this stretch of northwest Detroit once were Marygrove College and Sinai-Grace Hospital.

With the formal closing of the school in December, that leaves the eight-floor medical facility, which was under assault earlier this month.

The Detroit Medical Center's Sinai-Grace Hospital

All Detroit hospitals have been slammed by the pandemic, but perhaps none harsher than Sinai. A hospital administrator said one reason was the high number of nursing homes in the area.

Workers had told The Detroit News that patients were dying in the hallways. The hospital was running out of body bags and places to put the dead. State regulators are investigating a report that some bodies were stored in a room.

The setting was more tranquil along the retail strip just outside the hospital. But tranquil is one thing. Dormant is another.

Beauty salons and shops were closed behind locked gates. Restaurants were open but seeing few customers.

A worker at the Sweet Soul Bistro tried to put a good face on it, saying business has been up and down. Days can be good and bad.

The Bistro, one of several soul food places on McNichols, opened as a restaurant and lounge in 2015. Thanks to COVID-19, it’s now just an eatery and one limited to takeout.

Gone are Karaoke Mondays, Hustle Lesson Tuesdays and Live Music Wednesdays.

Something to do

One of the most distinctive sights here is a Home Depot.

For one thing, it sits in a residential area, surrounded on three sides by homes. For another, it's open. Most businesses that had nothing to do with food are closed.

Four people recently waited in line to get into the store, which limited how many customers could be inside. The queue stood six feet apart. Three wore masks.

Ken Bostic, one of the mask wearers, said he wasn’t overly worried about contracting the coronavirus. Still, at 63, he didn’t want to take any chances.

“If it gets you, it’s gonna get you,” he said.

His bigger concern was where to buy perennials. He had hoped to get them from Home Depot but, when he walked onto the parking lot, he saw the nursery was closed.

He decided to get in line, anyway, planning to idly walk the aisles. Because of COVID-19, he had nothing else to do.

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Twitter: francisXdonnell

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.