A caravan of party buses packed with St. Patrick’s revelers set out from Taylor for a strip of bars in Corktown Sunday, where hundreds from across metro Detroit danced and mingled in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.
One complication: A global pandemic experts warn will worsen if people don’t distance themselves from one another. The parties, a reliable high point of the year for Detroit bars, were in direct contradiction to the pleading of government and health officials.
The buses were all from one company — Bozzo’s (pronounced “bozos”) Limousine Service. Many revelers, like the 65-year-old driver of one of the coaches, were unfazed by warnings of dire consequences should the spread of coronavirus not be slowed.
"I don't think it’s as bad as what the media is making it out to be,” said Dale Phillips, of Canton. “Yeah there is a concern out here, but if you do your hygiene and be a little bit smart, why not come out? It’s a sunny day in Detroit and, I mean, we're Detroiters — we've been through a lot worse than this.”
The partying went on at bars along Michigan Avenue, including Nemo’s, Corktown Tavern and McShane’s, despite the cancellation of the parade that was to anchor the festivities.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has banned gatherings of 250 or more and advised people to stay at least six feet away from others to avoid contracting the highly contagious virus, which health officials say is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets. But in a Sunday news conference that announced a total 45 confirmed Michigan cases, Whitmer stopped short of closing bars and restaurants, as her counterparts in Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts and California have done. On Monday morning, the Free Press reported she would order the establishments closed except for carry out and delivery service at 3 p.m.
“We’re clearly watching that and I’m communicating with my colleagues across the country,” Whitmer said Sunday. “Like everyone else, I saw photos of people cramming into facilities … I found those critically disturbing.”
Whitmer said then that she could make a determination in the coming days. Schools are closed across the state, and many large companies have told employees to work from home.
Dr. Teena Chopra, medical director of infection prevention and epidemiology at DMC Harper University Hospital, says the state’s confirmed cases — which later ticked up to 53 — are “just the tip” of a “very, very big” iceberg. Hundreds of people are likely infected, she said, and many may exhibit mild or no symptoms.
“Any non-essential social gatherings or activities need to stop in order to flatten the curve,” she said, referring to slowing the rate of transmission so as to limit the duration of the outbreak and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. “Things will unfold on a state-to-state basis. It will all depend on every state’s governor — how they take the reins. Each individual has a lot of control of the situation at this time … but the knowledge gaps are definitely there in our community.”
Those gaps were on full display along Michigan Avenue Sunday.
“I’m healthy, I go to the gym every day and I take precautions,” said Phillips, pointing to his bottle of hand sanitizer. “It’s a cold.”
“I’m not worried, because alcohol disinfects most things,” laughed Kevin Kelly, a 37-year-old from Westland.
“It’s like the flu," said a 42-year-old woman from Southwest Detroit, who did not want to give her name. "They don’t count how many people die from the flu, but now they’re telling us — that’s the only difference.”
“I’m not worried about being close to people — it ain’t airborne,” said a 41-year-old man with her. (Though scientists employ varying definitions of “airborne,” coronavirus does travel through air.)
“We came to get f---ed up,” said Tammy Miller-Farr, 49, of Wayne. “I’m not worried because, one way or the other, it’s going to go around, so I’m at least going to enjoy myself while I can.
“Even my Jeep, on the back, says ‘one life, live it.’”
One woman conceded she hesited to join the crowds, but decided to do so at the last minute after learning a nurse she knows felt comfortable enough to partake. The woman, April, 49, of Warren, had two travel-sized hand sanitizers and was elbow-bumping acquaintances, rather than hugging or shaking hands.
Asked whether she felt she was contributing to a crisis, April countered that officials say “when it warms up you’re gonna be OK.” (Experts say it's too early to tell whether the virus will exhibit seasonal patterns, like the common flu.)
Phillips, meanwhile, said he was “not contributing to a problem” because he didn't feel sick.
Others made a different call. Bozzo’s normally brings eight buses to the St. Patrick’s parade day parties in Detroit. This year, they only filled three. Miller-Farr’s party bus crew, meanwhile, was about 20 percent thinner than previous years.
A man outside Nemo’s, who identified himself only as Brian, expressed some guilt over being out.
“I’m not really concerned about corona,” he said. “I don’t want to panic, I only want to isolate myself if it’s absolutely necessary. I probably should be doing that — it’s worked for China thus far. But I don’t know, I’ve isolated myself enough in my lifetime. I’m a single male, so I spend a lot of time at home.
"This is one time a year, like I said — very selfish — but this is one time a year I come out and hang out with my run club and have a good time.”
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