Ex-Wolverine Thomas Guynes 'refuses to live in fear' as deputy sheriff during COVID-19 outbreak

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Thomas Guynes describes himself as a “natural protector,” the guy who always wanted to “beat up the bully.”

Aside from the fact that at 6-foot-6 and 300-plus pounds he was built to play the position, that was a big reason he played on the offensive line at Michigan from 1994-96. It was his inherent need to protect.

Thomas Guynes is a deputy sheriff in the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department.

And now Guynes, 45, is on the front lines as a first-responder during this COVID-19 pandemic as a deputy sheriff for the Washtenaw County Sheriff Office. While the state is under a “stay home, stay safe” executive order, those who have “essential” jobs, like police officers and firefighters, doctors, nurses and grocery store employees, continue to work.

“I’m just a cog in the machine, and we’re just trying to keep the machine running right now and make everyone safe and keep crime as low as we possibly can,” Guynes told The Detroit News. “Your first responders –  fire, law enforcement, health care workers –  I think we are the thread of commonality. We are that lighthouse in a stormy sea, and we have to be those stalwarts of normalcy.”

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Guynes has been with the Washtenaw County Sheriff Office for 14 years and every day on the job has plenty of risks. But this is different now compounded by the threat of the virus.

“All you can do in this particular line of work is you have to have a level of vigilance, you pay attention to detail, say a prayer and put your best foot forward,” Guynes said. “I’m just a guy that refuses to live in fear.”

The risks are not just for the first responders but for their families when they go home.

“We’re out, then you end up going home to your family and, are you taking this stuff home?” he said. “Everyone else in your family is practicing social distancing and doing all the right things, and we’re trying to practice all the proper precautionary measures. But based off the job itself, sometimes you can’t cover every base unbeknownst to you, and you find out you may have unwittingly infected a loved one. A lot of that adds to an already full plate of the job.”

Guynes said his shifts have increased from eight hours to 12 and the officers have been equipped with another level of protection in the form of masks, gloves and various sanitizers.

“With this being an invisible threat, there’s no real way to have full protection,” Guynes said. “You’re not going to have 24/7, 365 protection unless you’re suited and booted 365 and 24/7. I take my proper precautions. Even in my personal vehicle, I’ve got a container of antiseptic wipes and my hand sanitizer. We have PPE (personal protective equipment) in our patrol vehicle – gloves, N-95 mask. They’ve only given us two or three of those. This is a situation where there isn’t an infinite amount of supplies. There is a shortage.

“There isn’t a factual way to say, if you follow one, two and three you won’t get X, Y, Z. If we worked in a lab, in a stationary environment, yes, you suit up, you do all the precautions, you’re going to be good. But I don’t work in that environment and we don’t live in that environment. I could take all these precautions dealing with the people I deal with, but who’s to say the guy whose wife is a nurse somehow contracted it and gave it to him, and I don’t get it from being out on the street, I get it from being in a briefing room. All we can try to do is put into place best common practices. Use some common sense and show a level of selflessness.”

Team player

Selflessness is a big part of playing on the offensive line and defines Guynes. That’s why he was particularly disappointed in images of students on spring break in Florida clearly not practicing social distancing. He saw that as “selfish” and “dumb”.

“That’s one of the great things about playing the greatest team sport ever created, football,” he said. “In order to be part of a great team, you have to have a high level of selflessness in order for the team to be good. I think that’s what we need to do globally is have a high level of selflessness and put our own individual wants or desires aside for the global good.”

Thomas Guynes: “All you can do in this particular line of work is you have to have a level of vigilance, you pay attention to detail, say a prayer and put your best foot forward.”

This has changed how he does his job. He typically responds to a situation from a tactical standpoint: Where is he parking his vehicle? What’s his best approach? Is he equipped with all the information to know what he’s walking into?

He still checks those boxes of his mental list but he has to consider other aspects, as well, now.

“I never used to keep hand sanitizer in my cargo pocket, and I’m lucky because I’m the only one that drives my vehicle," he said. "Anyone else I introduce into that vehicle, they’re in the back seat, and I know who’s been in there. It’s a little bit easier for me to police and assure my equipment is being disinfected.

"But because of the times we live in, this is just this is another layer of what we already do.”

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Being in law enforcement is about being prepared for all situations. But like first-responders working during this pandemic, it’s difficult to do the job while practicing social distancing. It’s impossible.

Guynes was out last week responding to a domestic disturbance with other officers when he was faced with a unique moment.

“We’re doing our thing and the guy sneezes,” Guynes said, pointing out this scene because sneezing is one of the ways the virus is spread. “I’m probably less than six feet away from him, but he turned his head. It wasn’t like he tried to sneeze on me. When you have an opportunity to dissect actions and protocols and intent, everything that we used to look at as just mundane is looked upon with a microscope now.”

More with less

Guynes is assuming that in these unprecedented times, first-responders will continue to do more with less as people within those agencies become infected and can no longer work.

“Not any fault of the sick or infected, but somebody has to carry that load because I’ve never had a day at work when 9-1-1 didn’t ring,” he said.

Thomas Guynes competes in a Michigan alumni flag football game in 2013.

He is seeing fewer pedestrians and cars out, and that’s a good thing. But there is a concern that because people are staying at home, and have few outlets, issues can arise.

“The more people are up under each other, as much as people say that humans aren’t solitary people, that we are social beings, I think, again, that begins to take its toll because you’re stuck,” Guynes said. “You don’t have any place to go, you don’t have an outlet, and you’re just with this other person, and depending on how big or how small your domicile is, that can create some tensions.”

Guynes worries that people may start to lose their patience and do things they wouldn’t normally. He continues to encourage people to stay inside and not risk being infected with COVID-19 and spreading the virus.

“It’s about putting your wants, needs and desires aside for the betterment of the team,” Guynes said. “I hope, I pray we have enough people out here who are like that.”

And then he and other law enforcement can do their jobs.

“That’s where we’re at right now,” Guynes said. “We have to continue to move forward as vigilantly as we possibly can as far as taking care of ourselves and taking care of co-workers so we can take care of the rest of the populace.”