One year of Covid-19 in Detroit: Upheaval, grief, loss and 'Moses, give me a pass'

March 07, 2021, 10:15 PM by  Nancy Derringer

"Like Passover" -- empty city streets after stay-home orders (File photo)

It started as a distant alarm, the kind that, when it finally fills the ear, makes you wonder why you didn’t hear it before. But by the time it did, the world was on its way to a year like few others in recent history. Covid-19 was a global wrecking ball, taking lives and economies, changing entire industries in the process.


On March 10, we’ll observe the one-year anniversary of the first cases being identified in Michigan. Since then, more than 523,000 Americans have died, 15,666 of them Michiganians. With vaccination accelerating, the end of the pandemic is in sight. But recovery will take time. In the end, the ultimate Covid long-hauler may be the United States itself.

We asked a number of Detroit-focused individuals to remember the year in review – restaurant owners, a health-care worker, a legislator, a funeral director and a mother of four struggling with working, and schooling, from home.

The beginning

Paul PJ Ryder, owner of PJ’s Lager House: There’s a gentleman at PJ’s, a regular. It was early March when he asked how I thought this coronavirus would affect me. I’d barely heard about it. My birthday was March 13, and we usually have a low-key thing at the bar. (My wife) and I went out to dinner first, and when we came back, there wasn’t a single person in the bar. We said, uh-oh.

Paul "PJ" Ryder, owner of PJ's Lager House (Photo: Facebook)

Larry Mongo, owner of Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy: I didn’t take it that seriously at first. My 70th birthday was on March 19th, and we’d decided to have a big party at the bar to celebrate. Then a friend of mine, a doctor, sent me a note saying Larry, please, you and Diane take this seriously. It is killing people. Right then, I heard that at least five or six of my friends had died. They were ballroom dancers, and those people got hit hard, early on. Then I hear another six or seven people I know well were in the hospital, and they died, too.

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, former state representative: I was really sick in January 2020. I was coughing so much I actually dislocated a disk in my back. It was horrible. The first time I became aware of Covid I was in bed, watching the news. They were covering China, which was building three hospitals. What in God’s name is this? I wondered if I had what they had. On March 17th, during dinner, a lobbyist told me, “I know you like to hug people, but you have to stop, this thing is serious.” Once Isaac (Robinson) passed it got really real for us. 

Dr. Teena Chopra, infectious-disease specialist and professor, Wayne State University: I realized (what was coming) pretty early on. When we learned about the first one or two cases in China, as soon as I heard it was a respiratory virus I was alarmed. Very quickly I found myself wearing many hats: An infectious-disease physician hat, seeing patients. As an epidemiologist, I was tracking the virus and leading a team to ensure the safety of the hospital staff. And I was also wearing the hat of a teacher and mentor, keeping up the morale of my students and fellows.

Stephen Kemp, Kemp Funeral Home, Southfield: I became aware of Covid around the first of the year. I get updates from the CDC, the weekly morbidity and mortality report. But I didn’t really pay attention until the latter part of March. That’s when we started seeing an increase in calls. A lot were diagnosed with pneumonia, disease of unknown origin, that sort of thing.

Shamyle Maya Dobbs, CEO, Michigan Community Resources: My husband and I have a blended family. It’s like the basis of a reality show, three teens and a toddler, all girls – 12,14,16 and 2-going-on-40. I remember news clips and conversations popping up on the news about the coronavirus. At the time, it hadn’t reached the U.S., and it seemed like this distant disease. The moment it hit home was seeing the tracker (on cable news) that went from international numbers to national numbers. One or two cases in Washington, then 10, then it just kept jumping. I told my husband this is a bad situation.

Stephen Kemp Sr., Kemp Funeral Home (File photo)

Kemp: In April it just went out of control. From the last week of March, all the way into May my life was surreal. We did five times the volume we usually do. Providence Hospital and Sinai Grace were sending the most, but there were also house calls from people who passed away at home. I remember my first case, a house call in Troy. The mother had been taking care of her son, a middle-aged man. He was doing fine, and mom went home to Chicago. Police did a wellness check later and he was deceased on the floor. I remember shipping him back home to mom. Soon we started taking overflow from funeral homes in Detroit. My phone was like a call center. People would be crying, saying “No one wants to take him.”

Chopra: It was physically, intellectually, emotionally draining. The number of deaths were overwhelming. It was horrific.

Gay-Dagnogo: My sister Julena got sick. My niece Janita was helping take care of her. We didn’t know she had Covid. Julena texted me: These bitches won’t let you come to the ER. I said it’s not safe. The hospital is a health war zone. I asked her how she was and she texted saying she needed oxygen. I was offering failed home remedies amidst the chaos.

Janita took her to Henry Ford, and I met them there. She was so weak. We prayed outside for her and I hugged her and told her she better come out of there. I drove away feeling so helpless. She was in there by herself. Her oxygen levels kept dropping, and she was transferred by helicopter to U-M. She sent a text on March 29 that said Made it to Ann Arbor. Feel like a ton of bricks on me. On March 30 she said They are getting ready to put a tube down my throat. That was her last message. She died two weeks later.

Larry Mongo at Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy (File photo)

Mongo: Every weekend at least 20 percent of my clientele are from overseas — especially Italy and Asia. We know because we ID people at the door, and we see passports. We were hearing about what was happening in China and Italy. Everybody was saying their prayers. I went to the shul next door and said an extra one. I kinda rubbed on the door and said Moses, give me a pass.

The middle

Kemp: The real trouble started when government offices closed. We couldn’t get death certificates. You have to have an official cause and manner of death to bury, and especially for cremation. I rented a refrigerated truck. My holding room was overflowing. Hospital morgues were overflowing. It was late May to June before I could finally catch up.

Without death certificates, families can’t collect insurance. And because people were dying so young, nobody had a will or plan. Some people had their living wills, medical power of attorney, all those things in order, but that wasn’t the majority. Then you had households with multiple Covid cases, like a husband and wife in the ICU at the same time. If one died and the other was on a vent, no one could speak for them. So someone had to get emergency guardianship. It complicated all the situations.

Ryder: It was a shock to get shut down. I did not expect it. There were people in positions of authority saying this will be worked out in no time, and it was a shock to see how fast things were deteriorating. I kept one person on staff, and told them: Everything we can apply for, apply for. We’ve been fairly successful. But it’s amazing how fast you can go through that if you don’t have any income coming in. I’ve been lucky because I own the building. I don’t have rent to pay.

Dr. Teena Chopra, Wayne State University (WSU photo)

Chopra: Detroit saw a tsunami of cases. It was very humbling and at the same time, empowering. Being on the front lines, dealing with shortages of PPE, ventilators, we were modifying our approach by the hour, trying to stay ahead of it on a daily basis. I saw the finest examples of teamwork in our hospital, and learned a lesson of kindness from everyone at Wayne State and DMC both.

We were one of the first hospitals in the country to mandate universal masking. (Masks) were our most valuable asset. We provided food to our staff to conserve PPE, because every time they went out of the hospital, they had to change. We provided universal testing for pregnant women. We were working around the clock. We were living on protein bars and lots of water.

Mongo: When the governor shut down everything, you know, I live at the top of Lafayette Tower and I looked down at the streets where no one was out, it just looked deserted. I told my wife, this must be what Passover was like.

Dobbs: The state started doing the shutdowns, and it got to schools. All four of our girls are in different schools. One’s in Ann Arbor, one’s in Grosse Pointe, one was staying with her mom in Texas and then moved here, and she’s in another. And the toddler goes to daycare. Then, suddenly they’re all at home. At the very beginning it’s a blur, all of us were trying to figure out work and school, what our new normal was.

Gay-Dagnogo: After Isaac passed, (the legislature) didn’t go back immediately. We had some votes, mainly to extend the Governor’s executive order powers, and Democrats wanted a joint resolution allowing virtual voting. (The Republicans) didn’t take the resolution up. I was of the mindset that the Republicans weren’t starting from a place of “how do we deal with this crisis,” but “how do we jam the governor.”

Chopra: The “Liberate Michigan” movement was very frustrating. We knew what was happening, but others weren’t seeing it.

Gay-Dagnogo: (When the Unlock Michigan protests happened), I was disgusted. That was the day after my sister died, and anyway, why would (other legislators) go there and make a mockery of Isaac’s life? There was no sense of urgency, outstate. It was a “Detroit problem.” I wasn’t as angry or bitter with my colleagues on the other side, despite the game-playing. I knew they just didn't get it. In a pack they act more belligerent, but individually, those relationships still stood in place. I think that’s the behavior I’ve seen in the legislature.

Kemp:  It hit my community so hard, and we were screaming and it’s like nobody heard us. I’d hear these people saying, “We have to open up. I can’t go to my restaurant anymore,” and I’m having trouble getting gloves because of the hoarding. Without gloves, I’m out of business.

Shamyle Dobbs (Photo: Michigan Community Resources)

Dobbs: Working from home, it was a situation where I had to apologize before every (Zoom) meeting. I’d tell people about my toddler: She may come onscreen, I may go offscreen. Everyone understood because everyone had something. There were pets and significant others. I had what I call “Zoom M&Ms,” where I’m just doling them out to keep her happy. But it is what it is. At one point I was doing a job evaluation, and my daughter is behind me (on screen) smearing applesauce all over her face.

And there’s my dad. He lives in New York, and has health issues. I pay all his bills, schedule all his doctor appointments. One day I’m on a Zoom call, and (his caretaker) calls from New York and says his cardiologist wants to talk to me. So I have one call in one ear and the doctor in the other, and then he wants to go on FaceTime to show me some things. That’s my day-to-day. That’s the mayhem.

The beginning of the end

Ryder: One of the first things that came through financially was Wayne County. They had an emergency loan fund. We needed it because we’d spent all our money on food and booze for St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and hardly anyone showed up. That loan has started coming due, and it’s really pulling the rug out from underneath us. The bills keep coming. The tax bills, the insurance bills, the water bills, but we have really had no income. In the times we were open, between June and November, we weren’t making enough to pay our bills.

When we got shut down in November, I said I’m done, I just don’t have the financial resources to do this anymore. But the staff told me to try a GoFundMe, and people came through in a big way. We made around $30,000, and it got us through November, December, January. We’re going to try to re-open in mid-March. That’s the goal. The support of people who frequent PJ’s has been phenomenal. One of my old friends said, “This is your George Bailey moment.” It truly has been. People really came through when we were on the ropes.

Mongo: The pain hit me when the city put all the pictures at Belle Isle. I rode by there and saw those faces and those smiles, I just couldn’t believe they were dead. For me, to see at least 15 faces that I knew, and some I didn’t even know had died. I wasn’t ready. I drove around twice. Mayor Duggan, thank you for that. These people did matter.

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (File photo)

I’m listening to science, and figuring it should be safe to reopen by May. I bought the building years ago, and that’s my blessing – I don’t have to pay rent. We’d be closed forever, otherwise. We hope to reopen in June or late May. Maybe three days a week.

Kemp: (With all the disruption), we couldn’t service families and help them put their lives back together. I’m looking at three (open) files, all waiting for an estate to be done. Now, that takes three to four months. Nothing can be done quickly. It exacerbates the grief. That was the thing that was depressing to me. We have to be sensitive to cultural norms. Some want (their remains) to be sent back to their homeland to be buried. But embassies are closed, countries are closed, and they all have different rules. I have one situation presently, where the person died in September. We will ship (the body) in another week; she’s going to Lagos.

Dobbs: I can take the craziness in stride, I recognize these are all moments in time. As stressful as it is, I recognize my privilege. I have a job, a home, family support, an organization that supports other non-profits. I have a board who recognize that life happens.  In moments of incredible stress, I remember these things. When I look back, I will be ironing my cape, because I am a superhero.

But the other piece is about taking a sabbatical or some sort of break when this is over. Because even as a superhero, it isn’t sustainable. The strong black woman trope is not sustainable.

Ryder: I’m 66 years old. Parts of me want to retire, and parts want to make it through this, if only to show my gratitude to all the people who helped us in our darkest hours.

Chopra: I’m a very positive person in general and this is the lesson of kindness that I have learned: Despite all the challenges, and the horrendous outcomes and the mortality I and others have seen, we are a formidable force together.

Gay-Dagnogo: I remain perplexed with the absence of simple humanity in Michigan’s legislature, voting along party lines on a budget that leaves $2 billion dollars on the table in Washington when it addresses the fractures that were highlighted during Covid. Many Michiganders are facing tough times with work loss, business closure and learning loss. They need access to these dollars, for unemployment claims, food assistance and more. While Detroit was certainly hit the hardest, social vulnerability indexes extend throughout many rural communities and as far as the U.P.  We should be in this fight for our survival together as a state.

Kemp: It makes me think, my Lord, what has happened to this country? I’m hoping we can heal this it’s-all-about-me, and nobody else.

Mongo: I hope the state will come up with some kind of card to show you’re vaccinated. If the governor would do that, we could open up all these restaurants. The majority of people want to be vaccinated. Those who don’t, they can stay home. Going back to Passover, they can talk to Ramses II. A vaccine, in my religion, is the lamb’s blood.

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