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Michigan's only COVID-free county braces for unwelcome visitor

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Good things tend not to last in Ontonagon County.

The mills and mines have closed. The population has dwindled. The few jobs that remain pay little.

But good fortune has decided to smile upon this rugged outpost at the western end of the Upper Peninsula.

It’s the only place in Michigan without the coronavirus. Of the state’s 83 counties, it’s the only one without a reported case of the disease.

Other places might celebrate being a refuge from a plague, but that’s not the way things work in Ontonagon.

Jill Johnson helps a customer at JJ's Tackle Shack
in Ontonagon, Michigan, on Thursday.

Instead of joy or relief, there is foreboding and consternation.

With the bars and restaurants reopening and the tourists coming and few people wearing masks or standing apart, locals feel it’s just a matter of time before COVID-19 comes a calling.

And, if it does come, it will find a vulnerable citizenry, said residents. Ontonagon has the oldest population in the state with a median age of 58.6 years.

So much for the celebration.

“It’s luck, just dumb luck,” said Sheri Dahlstrom, 64, a caretaker. “I’m surprised it’s taken this long.”

If the Upper Peninsula is the outback of Michigan and the western U.P. the outback of the U.P., then Ontonagon is the outback of the western U.P. Which is a long way of saying, it’s remote.

Lying along Lake Superior, it’s a land of vast wilderness and startling vistas, thick forests of maples and hemlocks, beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Earlier this month, escaped sheep strolled along a two-lane asphalt road. The lobby of a village government building is too small for people to remain apart so they conduct municipal business through a window.

“I love it here,” said Betty Ernest, 74, a retired cook and dietary manager. “I wouldn’t move in a minute.”

As for the coronavirus, residents come by their pessimism naturally.

Troubles fall as easily as the snow. Booms turn into busts. The miners and lumbermen are long gone. Everything, it seems, is long gone.

The last blow was the closing of the Smurfit-Stone Container paper mill in 2010. With 180 jobs, it was the county’s larger employer.

The population has since dropped 16% to 5,720. It also eventually cost Ontonagon village one-third of its general fund revenues.

“The U.P. is dying,” said Kerry Denison, 77, a retired homicide investigator. “The town lacks factories and grocery stores.”

A masked mannequin sits outside the door of Nonesuch Crafts and Guitar shop in Ontonagon, Michigan, Thursday.

Tale of triumph?

But enough of the gloom and doom. This is a story about how a hard-scrabble county has staved off a highly contagious pathogen that has inflicted 63,000 people in Michigan over three-and-a-half months.

It’s supposed to be a tale of triumph.

As to how Ontonagon has been able to avoid the scourge, it might have been helped by its sparse population, according to health officials.

It’s the third-largest county in the state but has the second smallest number of people.

It has five residents per square mile compared to 27,000 for New York City, which was ravaged by the coronavirus.

“It’s rural,” said Kate Beer, health officer of the Western U.P. Health Department. “Also, a lot of people are elderly, so I imagine they obeyed the stay-at-home order.”

The county wasn’t as lucky during the Spanish flu in 1918. The number of deaths jumped 30% from the prior year, from 112 to 146, according to state records. The records didn’t list the cause of deaths.

As for 2020, some residents believe the virus is already here, that it’s lurking out of sight, like the copper beneath their feet.

A sign on a business asks patrons to keep their safety masks on until seated.

They swear they’ve had the disease but the symptoms were so mild they didn’t bother going to the hospital or get tested.

“A lot of health care workers have a suspicion it was already here,” said Brooke Holmstrom, a nurse at Ontonagon Family Health Center.

Others feel a lack of testing has failed to identify the interloper in their midst.

Beer originally told The Detroit News that 200 people had been tested for the virus but then said the number was higher. She didn't know what the specific number was.

Tests have become more available in the last three weeks, she said. Several U.P. health centers have joined together to offer drive-thru tests in the county every two weeks, including Tuesday and Thursday.

Here come the tourists

Like the rest of Michigan, residents of Ontonagon have argued over the coronavirus and how to fight it. But one thing locals agree about is the disease, if it hasn’t already, will soon arrive in the county.

Now that boating and camping are allowed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had prohibited it in response to the virus, tourists have been pouring into Ontonagon.

Parking lots are full of cars with license plates from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.

They’re drawn by the walleye and variety of trout in the tea-colored rivers. The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, where camping began June 22, boasts waterfalls, hiking trails and a long stretch of beach along Lake Superior.

Booths are cordoned off for social distancing at Syl's Restaurant in Ontonagon

JJ’s Tackle Shack was overrun by customers after the lockdown was lifted in May, said Bill Johnson, whose wife owns the shop.

“When they removed the boat restrictions, we were slammed,” he said.

Long lines of boats have been forming to get into the Ontonagon River, he said.

Many businesses have signs requiring customers to wear masks but rarely enforce the rule, say residents.

The businesses, which had to close during the virus-inspired lockdown, are relying on tourists even more than usual this year.

But tourists, no matter how much money they have, aren’t welcome at Heritage Antiques unless they’re wearing a mask.

Owner Penny Jilbert, who runs the register from behind a clear plastic curtain, recently asked a couple to leave after they declined to cover their mouths.

“I don’t want any trouble, but I also think it’s not asking much,” she said.

Ontonagon unmasked

It’s not just the tourists who aren’t wearing masks. Some locals don them faithfully but just as many, if not more, refuse to.

Resident David Kalivoda, 72, said it’s not unusual for him to walk into a store where he’s the only one, among customers and workers, to be wearing a mask.

“Many people are letting their guard down,” he said.

Residents who go maskless said they believe the fear over the coronavirus is being overblown.

They also may be influenced by President Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a face covering. Trump captured 60% of the county vote in the 2016 election.

From the window of her gift shop, Living the UP Dream, Elizabeth Peterson recently watched a group of people outside a coffee shop down the street mingle without masks.

It filled her with dread.

“There is definitely a false sense of security,” she said. “It’s way too soon to be complacent.”

Peterson and her husband had moved here five years to “socially distance,” she said. They came from the populous precincts of Carroll, Iowa, population 9,800.

They have a home in the country and an even more secluded place that is surrounded by the Ottawa National Forest.

She loves the solitude but worries it could be ruined by the visitation of a deadly disease.

“Now that I’m back at work, I worry a lot more,” she said. “It’s scary not knowing.”

If the coronavirus comes to Ontonagon, it could wreak havoc among the residents.

The decades-long exodus of those looking for work has left an elderly population behind.

And the area is ill-equipped to handle an outbreak, say health officials.

Its only hospital, Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital, has 15 beds and none for intensive care. Anyone seriously ill would need to be taken to medical facilities an hour or two away in Houghton or Marquette

“It's kinda iffy now, you know?” said Ernest, the retired cook.

Holmstrom, the health center nurse, described the situation as dire.

She worries about catching COVID-19 at work and bringing it home to her family. The possibility gives her panic attacks, she said.

“All it takes is one person to come up here, get sick and infect how many people,” she said. “They should be wearing a mask. It frustrates me beyond belief.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @prima_donnelly