April 28, 2020 / 6:18 PM / a month ago

As virus ravages Detroit, rural Michigan chafes at heavy job losses

DETROIT (Reuters) - For Amy Schuch, who co-owns a tree-removal business in rural Michigan, social distancing was part of the job long before the coronavirus pandemic largely shut down her state’s economy.

FILE PHOTO: People wear face masks waiting outside a beauty salon and check cashing facility as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to spread, in the Highland Park section of Detroit, Michigan U.S., April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

“We work in the middle of nowhere,” Schuch said.

But an economic shutdown led by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has broadly restricted business activity across the state for weeks, including the sparsely populated Manistee County in northwestern Michigan where Schuch resides.

So far, no one has died yet from the novel coronavirus there though the county has reported 11 cases, according to the state government. But Schuch’s business was largely suspended for the last month and she worries about a looming debt payment on equipment due in July.

In Michigan, more than a million workers, about a quarter of the state’s workforce, applied for unemployment benefits between March 15 and April 18. Rural communities less exposed to the pandemic were just as hard hit economically as coronavirus-ravaged Detroit, state government data shows.

The mounting economic pain across America underscores a tough balancing act for Whitmer and other state governors, who are starting to ease restrictions even as the number of U.S. cases and deaths increase, now more than 1 million and at least 56,600 people have died, the most in the world.

While most Americans, led by an overwhelming majority of Democrats, still want to remain at home to protect themselves from the virus, Republicans are increasingly anxious about the economic toll. An April 20-24 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 44% of Republicans said stay-at-home orders should be lifted to get the economy going again, up from 24% who said the same thing in a similar poll at the end of March.

Michigan, widely seen as a battleground state in the Nov. 3 presidential election after Donald Trump won it by less than a percentage point in 2016, has become a microcosm of the partisan debate. Whitmer, cited as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has been criticized by Trump allies in the state for some of her measures, seen as among the strictest in the country.

Interviews with nearly 20 voters in rural and urban Michigan illustrate the divide.

Republicans in conservative Manistee County said statewide restrictions have disproportionately hurt areas less touched by the virus such as theirs. But people in Detroit’s Wayne County, which largely votes Democratic, continue to support shutdown measures. The county has reported close to 16,000 cases and at least 1,622 deaths as of Monday, according to the state government.

Yanni Dionisopoulos, 38, said he would have supported even stricter measures even though the shutdown hammered his family’s decades-old restaurant in downtown Detroit.

In neighboring Oakland County, part of the Detroit metro area, 49-year-old single mother Stephanie Short lost her job as an office manager last week. But she thinks the shutdown should have started even earlier and fears a premature opening of the economy will lead to more infections and deaths.

“It’s been so devastating, the lives that have been lost from the virus,” said Short, a Democrat.

RISKS AND BENEFITS

The six counties that make up the Detroit metro area had more than 80% of Michigan’s 3,407 coronavirus deaths as of Monday, but less than half the unemployment claims. In both rural Manistee County and urban Wayne County, nearly one in three workers have filed jobless claims.

Whitmer on Monday lifted restrictions on some businesses, including garden stores, pest-control and landscaping operations, though she extended a stay-at-home order through May 15.

The easing of restrictions means Schuch’s business can operate again. But the 42-year-old Republican said the economy has been hit so hard clients will have less money for tree trimming.

Schuch and other Manistee County Republicans said some shutdown measures were needed to control the epidemic but that restrictions on outdoor work have been too strict given the low number of cases in the area.

“It’s not right,” she said.

Whitmer told a news conference on Monday she anticipates allowing more outdoor businesses, including construction, to get back to work “in the next week or two.”

But the governor said the state would be monitoring the number of coronavirus cases and could tighten measures again “if we see a spike or we’re concerned about hospital capability of meeting need.”

(Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the United States link: here)

FILE PHOTO: A man walks across an empty street as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to spread, in Detroit, Michigan U.S., April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

(Graphic: Reuters online site for coronavirus link: here)

(Graphic: Coronvirus deaths and jobless claims in Michigan link: here)

Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington and Michael Martina in Detroit, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Grant McCool

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