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COVIDville, USA

A small town caught up in America’s culture war between science and right-wing conspiracism.
June 1, 2021
Featured Image
Barber Karl Manke of Owosso, Michigan gives a free haircut on the steps of the state capitol in Lansing during "Operation Haircut" on May 20, 2020. (Photo by Elaine Cromie / Getty)

On May 15, Michigan, in keeping with updated CDC guidelines, lifted its mask mandate for fully vaccinated residents. The mask mandate for unvaccinated residents will expire on July 1. Elsewhere in the country, the new CDC guidelines will mark the end of a year-long saga of safety restrictions and episodic lockdowns that burdened industry and disrupted lives and livelihoods. But in my small town of Owosso, Michigan—which almost exactly a year ago became a flashpoint in the lockdown protest movement, and which seems to have little use for either masks or the vaccine—I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell the difference.

As it stands, Michigan remains among the country’s populations hardest hit by COVID-19: a blotch of dark purple and red in a sea of orange and yellow on the New York Times COVID risk map. And tiny Owosso (population 15,000), the site of multiple rallies against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s health and safety measures, spent all of April 2021 in the top ten of the NYT list of U.S. metro areas with the largest number of new cases relative to population. Between April 12 and April 21 it held the number 1 spot—that is, it had the most new COVID infections as a share of population of any jurisdiction in the country. When the NYT discontinued tracking at the metro level on May 24, Owosso was still number 30.

Welcome to COVIDville, USA. The story of how we got here—of how a quiet mid-Michigan town, once home to the world’s largest casket factory, came to be one of the country’s most intense hotspots in a deadly pandemic—is a complicated one. It involves officials in the local, state, and federal governments, a local gadfly and his conspiracy-blogging brother, and the perverse incentives, and outright grift, currently ruling the American right. The story also has a deeply personal component, because I happen to live here with the people I love.

Love in the Time of COVID

My fiancée Elisabeth used to joke that moving back to her hometown to live in a house with her mother would be the death of her. For a while, this past December—when, despite our many precautions, she came down with the novel coronavirus—I worried she may have been right. At the time she was running a 102 degree fever and coughing violently. For almost a week I hovered indecisively—checking her vitals, watching for a drop in her blood oxygenation (measured with a pulse oximeter) or a worsening fever that would be a sign we should take her into the hospital—before at last the fever broke and gradually, over the next month, her cough improved. Her doctors informed me she had gotten lucky: our exposure had been minimal and mitigated by our use of PPE, but it might have been much worse.

Just the year previous, Elisabeth had been diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, a severe form of autoimmune disease, which meant that, among other things, her immune system was compromised—being too busy attacking her own healthy tissue to easily fend off infection—and she was in the high-risk category for illnesses like COVID. That she had contracted the virus had been a nightmare come to life. It had been the crescendo of a year’s worth of anxiety and stress about the advance of the disease across the country, about its staggering cost in human lives, about the irresponsibility of our political leaders and the callous indifference of our neighbors: a year spent indoors, worrying that every late-night trip to the grocery store—though masked and carefully disinfected—would be the time I brought home something that would kill the love of my life. In the end, the breach had been a married couple who showed up masked at her mother’s law office to sign and notarize some paperwork, knowing they were actively sick. They had neglected to tell anyone until much later, by which point everyone in the house was already symptomatic. Elisabeth’s mother, Rebecca, over 70 years old and a heart attack survivor, had shown signs first and made an effort to isolate herself from us in another part of the house, but it was already too late: Elisabeth and I spiked our first fevers a few days later.

Blessedly, my course with the illness was mild and amounted to little more than a persistent and disorienting fever that made it difficult to concentrate. Elisabeth and Rebecca however got the full suite of severe flu-like symptoms, including the disconcerting drop in blood oxygenation that meant their lung function was decreasing. The people working for the state’s COVID hotline had informed us we would be turned away from the hospitals for want of open beds so long as their blood oxygen levels remained above the 85 percent threshold indicating severe respiratory distress. So, we watched and waited, which gave me ample time to reflect on how it was we had come to this state of affairs when 2020 had begun with such promise.

The lupus diagnosis had initially been a relief, because it put a name at last to the bizarre and debilitating constellation of autoimmune symptoms that had upended our lives six years earlier, nearly derailed Elisabeth’s graduation from law school, prevented her from working, left her with a full set of dental implants and an implanted cardiac monitor at age 30, and robbed her of the ability to walk unassisted. It also put an end to the long succession of doctors, hospitals, tests, and medications that had consumed our time, savings, and income since 2013. Over the half decade since her symptoms emerged, Elisabeth had been given at least half a dozen tentative diagnoses ranging from cancer to conversion disorder (what doctors in the nineteenth century had called “hysteria”) before intensive examination of her bloodwork and biopsy of her immune tissues had confirmed that the culprit was lupus.

The time spent seeking a diagnosis had seemed interminable, but we learned Elisabeth’s experience is about the average for lupus patients, because of the disease’s protean suite of complications, which can send patients and doctors on a wild goose chase of poking, prodding, and differential diagnostics before an answer is arrived at—almost by process of elimination. The disease’s reputation in this regard is so strong that it became a running joke in the medical-mystery drama House. In the end, the search for answers had pushed my middling income as a financial analyst at a call center—an employer I had joined immediately out of high school and remained with for nine years—to its breaking point. Elisabeth’s mother had offered the solution: I would quit my job and we’d move from Columbus, Ohio to Elisabeth’s hometown of Owosso to live with her—Elisabeth would get the care she needed with Rebecca’s help, and I would finally give college a shot in the hopes that a better education might open up a more remunerative career with which to support us both.

Elisabeth hadn’t liked the idea at first. Growing up in the tiny mid-Michigan town hadn’t been easy for her, and, like her elder sister and many of her friends, she’d left as soon as she’d been able, parlaying a National Merit Scholarship and formidable test scores into a spot at Oberlin College in Northeast Ohio, where she double-majored in neuroscience and Russian history, and from there to law school at Ohio State. She’d returned only a few times per year to visit with family, most recently when her father was in the final days of his struggle with kidney disease and pulmonary fibrosis—complications of his Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. For all that those memories and others were still painfully fresh, the place did have some things to recommend it. It was located within driving distance of Ann Arbor, which had both the University of Michigan and its excellent hospital system, and most of all there would be family. Elisabeth’s late father Thomas, who had been awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in the war, had deep roots in the community and his widow Rebecca still maintained the century-old law practice in wills and trusts that bore the family name. Ultimately financial necessity made the decision for us and by the end of 2019 Elisabeth was a patient in the UofM health system and I was transferring from the UofM Flint campus to Ann Arbor in pursuit of a degree in computer science and classical languages.

We had taken the diagnosis as a sign we’d made the right choice. While there is no cure for lupus, we were eager to begin pursuing treatments—including hydroxychloroquine and a biweekly intravenous infusion of a new drug called Benlysta—that held the potential to restore some of Elisabeth’s quality of life and even, perhaps, put her disease into remission. With that hope in mind, we had looked forward to 2020 as the year when we would get our lives back on track. Alas, that was not to be. By April of last year, the University of Michigan campus shut down. Classes moved online. Elisabeth’s infusion treatments were on hold. Then, President Donald Trump’s ramblings instigated a run on the drug hydroxychloroquine, leaving Elisabeth’s medication scarce as pharmacies had to ration it.

That, however, was just the beginning of our problems. Owosso was about to become a battleground for the ongoing culture war between the American right and its perceived enemies in government, modern science, and academia.

Most of the essential businesses in Owosso that were permitted to stay open during the lockdowns posted notices about the statewide mandates for wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, but few were enforcing those requirements. On April 13, 2020, Rep. John Moolenaar, a Republican representing Michigan’s 4th Congressional District (which includes Owosso), signed an open letter with five other GOP congressmen, condemning Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders as “overly restrictive.” (Moolenaar would later, incidentally, be among the 126 Republican congressmen to sign an amicus brief in support of the Texas lawsuit attempting to disqualify the electors from several states, including Michigan, which Donald Trump had lost in the 2020 election.) The following month, Shiawassee County Sheriff Brian BeGole would join five other Michigan sheriffs in refusing to enforce Governor Whitmer’s orders closing nonessential businesses and requiring residents to wear masks. In this environment, it is perhaps small wonder that sooner or later someone in Owosso would decide to flout those directives.

Hometown Heroes

Karl Manke, the proprietor of a local hair salon, first made national news in early May 2020 when the 79-year-old reopened his shop in defiance of the public safety mandates. I wrote about him at the time for The Bulwark, describing his subsequent climb to stardom among Michigan Republican activists, as well as his personal quirks and his exploits as an author of self-published fiction. The stunt had resulted in fines and the suspension of his professional license, but after participating in rallies in Owosso and at the state capitol in Lansing, giving interviews for a variety of conservative news outlets, and raising more than $80,000 in crowdfunding for his legal expenses, Manke found a sympathetic ear at the Michigan Supreme Court, which overturned a lower court decision finding for Whitmer’s health department. The harm posed by the continued operation of his shop—where Manke worked in close quarters with his customers and did not require that they wear masks—was too speculative, the court had found, to justify an injunction against Manke without first holding a full hearing. “It is incumbent on the courts,” wrote Justice David Viviano in his concurrence, “to ensure decisions are made according to the rule of law, not hysteria.” The decision was moot anyway, as the governor had, earlier on the day of the ruling, allowed the state’s barbershops to reopen, among other adjustments to the rules.

Manke had won, and Lansing’s appetite for such aggressive measures to control the spread of the virus, when no enforcement of such measures seemed possible, appeared to be on the wane. Manke’s ordeal, which he had often compared to that of Jews in the Holocaust, was over, but his efforts to capitalize on the experience had just begun. Stepping into the role of “America’s Barber” (a title he was now using on his personal website and merchandise) proved to be a boon not only for the shop but, importantly to Manke, for his book sales as well. The only way to make money as a writer, he had told the Detroit News, was to become famous—and his legal battles, protests, and appearances on television certainly seemed to have accomplished that. In many ways, Manke seems tailor-made for a moment in Republican politics when self-made entrepreneurs willing to fight the government are in high demand—and, like many in the right’s burgeoning industry of populist grifters, he has paired it with a willingness to say outrageous things.

“They would trade their liberty for security,” Manke said of the victims of the Holocaust, returning to one of his recurring themes as he was being interviewed by the New Yorker. One of Manke’s self-published novels, Age of Shame (2015), uses the Nazi genocide as a backdrop for a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between a German and a Jew, and in interviews the barber would frequently use the Jews and what his book describes as “their centuries-old compliance to their weakness toward fatalism” as a contrasting example for his own behavior in the face of government overreach. “I refuse to get into any kind of cattle car,” he told Rolling Stone.

In that same interview, Manke also advertised his opposition to modern social norms concerning speech—an important shibboleth in right-wing discourse. “When I was a kid, you had these stereotype things that you’ve played with each other,” he said.“You were a Polack, you were a kraut, you were a kike, you were a spic, you were a dago.” Now, he lamented, “everybody’s got so sensitive, you can’t even say those words.” Manke also seems discomfited by the changing role of women, remarking on his spat with the Michigan governor that “I’m the male, I’m the husband, I’m the father . . . and she’s not my mother.” In addition to his stand against Lansing, Manke’s seeming talent for saying what a certain type of person is thinking has made him a rising star in the state’s conservative politics. When Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano announced his campaign for the GOP nomination to challenge Whitmer’s hold on the governor’s mansion, he sought and received Manke’s endorsement and the barber appeared in his first campaign ad. It seemed Karl the barber had made it to the big leagues.

Along the way, however, Manke received plenty of help. In June 2020, Tony Daunt, then executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, had named Manke MFF’s “Freedom Fighter of the Month.” The group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit funded in part by the family of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, had sponsored the rallies in Lansing where Manke had spoken and cut hair as an act of protest against the lockdown measures. Manke had put a face on those “suffering under Gov. Whitmer’s arbitrary and capricious economic lockdown” said Daunt, who would go on to replace Aaron Van Langevelde as the Republican designee for the bipartisan state board of canvassers after the GOP declined to renominate the latter in retaliation for his decisive vote to certify the Michigan results in the 2020 election.

Karl Manke also found help promoting his message, his public profile, and his books from his 68-year-old younger brother, Tom, whose local news blog and attached Facebook news groups—one for Shiawassee County and another specifically for Owosso—had covered Karl’s exploits assiduously and developed a large following along the way, boasting a combined readership of more than 40,000 on the social networking site: enough to overshadow the circulation of Owosso’s local paper, the Argus Press (print circulation: 11,000). By April of this year, interest in the sites had grown so intense that the younger Manke was looking to hire a dedicated employee to manage their advertising clients.

In addition to covering developments in his brother’s career, Tom also provides color commentary on local politics, name-and-shame style tabloid copy on the county police blotters and criminal court proceedings, and reviews of local events and businesses both in print and in a kind of motorcycle-mounted road diary, delivered as a series of videos that feature Tom, often clad in riding gear, speaking into his cellphone camera, interviewing locals, and providing man-on-the-street perspectives. Like Karl, however, Tom seems to have cottoned onto the zeitgeist and his public’s appetite for controversy, conspiracy, and partisan propaganda, with the predictable result that the site has now become the county’s biggest source of misinformation about the pandemic, vaccines, and, of course, the 2020 election.

“Who Dares to Share This?”

Tom Manke’s first taste of national attention came around the same time as Karl’s—when USA Today fact-checked Tom for making the false claim that Governor Whitmer had encouraged violence against those refusing to wear masks. Of the plot later that year to kidnap the Governor, Tom Manke would post the pictures of the accused and, referring to a since-deleted video by suspect Brandon Caserta, write that the suspects were “Anti-Government and Anti-Police.” In December he would direct his readers to materials from WikiLeaks: “We are told that the following is in this treasure trove is [sic]: everything from Hillary Clinton’s emails, McCain’s being guilty, Vegas shooting done by an FBI sniper, Steve Jobs HIV letter, PedoPodesta, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Bilderberg, CIA agents arrested for rape, WHO pandemic and more.” Manke, however, was careful to hedge: “We don’t know for sure for it is only being reported that is what is in this trove.” Where these claims were being reported he doesn’t specify, but this conspiracist tone was already becoming a hallmark of the blog’s content.

Tom Manke would cover much of the usual fare on the conspiracist right: dark insinuations about Hunter Biden’s laptop, suspicions about mail-in ballots and the county’s loss of its bellwether streak in presidential elections, the now-obligatory comparison of Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s inauguration crowd sizes, etc.—but the claims were escalating. Like the rest of right-wing media, Tom appeared to be accommodating the changing tastes of his audience. In that audience was another Owosso business owner, Richard Maurer, the 65-year-old owner of Dick’s Auto Service, a local repair shop. Maurer, who attended the pro-Trump election protests in Washington, D.C. on January 6—although he was reportedly not among those who stormed the Capitol—was charged in late January with making terrorist threats after he posted to Facebook his intention to visit Washington again for President Joe Biden’s inauguration so he could “shoot Democrats.” Though Maurer’s original Facebook account has since been deleted (avoidance of social media having been a condition of his bond), it remains tagged in the comments sections of several of Tom Manke’s articles.

For his part, Maurer appears to be unrepentant. “I feel that they stole my vote, then they stole my freedom,” he told a local ABC affiliate. “All that did was lit the fire inside of me more.” Maurer likewise has made plain his feelings about the state’s governor and her actions during the pandemic: “I would have fought Adolf Hitler as I am fighting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,” he wrote in an April 2020 letter to the Argus Press, making a now-familiar comparison to describe his own defiance of last year’s lockdowns. To Maurer’s mind, Democrats were “like the Brown Shirts doing the dirty work with a wink from the Nazi party.” In February of this year, Tom Manke would use almost identical language, describing a Democratic party that, “like the Brown Shirts in the 30s, attacked and terrorized people that did not think like them.”

Like his brother, Tom Manke appears to have a passion for history, which he draws on to contextualize modern day violence. When riots broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, Tom wrote a piece unfavorably comparing the violence to the 1893 lynching of an Irish drifter in nearby Corunna, the last lynching known to have occurred in Shiawassee County and the state of Michigan. “The big difference in how a mob acted in 1893 and today,” he wrote, “is that in Corunna the mob did not burn down businesses, torch their own homes or kill their horses, but instead went after the alleged murderer. . . . The next day the Sheriff was congratulated on not having his men hurt and allowing street justice to unfold.” Manke disclaimed any support for either instance of violence, but he thought the comparison instructive. “It is only by reviewing the past that we can keep from making the same mistakes in the future,” he wrote in another piece last summer, describing somewhat critically the local history of the Ku Klux Klan, which had maintained its Michigan headquarters in Owosso. On his personal account, however, Tom is less circumspect. On May 23 of this year he shared a photograph depicting members of the British neo-Nazi group Patriotic Alternative as they unfurled a banner with the slogan “White Lives Matter” atop Mam Tor in Derbyshire, England. “Who Dares to Share This?” read the caption, helpfully machine-translated from its original Danish by the social media platform. Though Manke was likely unaware of the provenance of the image, his decision to share it uncritically is an illustration of the dynamics of social media on the right and of its disturbing tendency to provide such groups with a platform, witting or not, for their message.

“Great COVID News for Shiawassee County!”

Tom Manke’s most pernicious contribution to local dialogue about politics, however, is undoubtedly his reportage on the COVID-19 pandemic. It is on this subject that we can most clearly see the alternate reality the American right has constructed for itself. “NUMBERS TUMBLING!” proclaimed a post from February 26 of this year. The press, he said, “is still trying to spin COVID as a virus that may kill us all. Possibly it is to sell more subscriptions.” By that time, COVID-19 had claimed more than 498,000 American lives and Shiawassee County was averaging 8 new cases per day according to New York Times data. “Great COVID News for Shiawassee County!” began another post on Manke’s blog on April 14, two days after the county hit its peak in new cases and topped the NYT list:

[W]e are hearing of more cases of people being sick after the vaccine than what the Health Department is stating is in the hospital for COVID. There were NO DEATHS even though we are supposed to be the hot spot in the country.

Addressing the 84 deaths from COVID that the health department had recorded in the county, Manke again relied on conspiracy: “Even if you are 102 and your heart finally gave out or are 68 riddled with cancer, they can list COVID on the death certificate without doing a test.” Manke makes no attempt to substantiate these claims, nor to explain why or how the conspiracy he alleges had managed to ensnare even local officials in the densely Republican county, but it was clear Manke was willing to go further than outlets in the mainstream right and that was part of his appeal.

Tom’s brother Karl was likewise becoming more emphatic. On March 3, Tom reported that Karl had turned away a Fox News camera crew when it arrived from New York to interview him. The reason? “I am not wearing a friggin mask!” The Fox producers, one of whom refused to enter the barbershop, stated that the request that Karl cover his nose and mouth was made so that they could film according to the outlet’s safety standards, but the elder Manke was adamant that he would not follow their “New York rules.”

However, in this matter, Karl’s skepticism of recommended safety measures was hardly unique. When the local hospital, Owosso Memorial, took a survey of its 1,200 employees at the close of 2020 as part of Michigan’s impending vaccine rollout, only 300 indicated they would take the vaccine if offered. “After more and more [hospital employees] did their research,” said a spokesperson for the hospital, that number rose to 600. One wonders where they were doing their research before.

Elisabeth and I received our first dose of the Moderna vaccine on March 31—as it happens, the anniversary of our first date. Neither of us was willing to chance that our brush with the disease had conferred immunity from future infection, particularly with her compromised immune system. We received our second dose as the disease was peaking in the county in April. As of this writing, 36 percent of Shiawassee residents have been fully vaccinated, trailing the statewide and national figures (both 41 percent) by 5 points.

Since its mid-April peak, when Tom Manke informed his readers of the “Great COVID News,” the pandemic has killed an additional 20 people in Shiawassee County, according to the New York Times. The total number of dead in Michigan is over 20,000, more than 590,000 nationwide. “If you live in Shiawassee County look around and tell everyone what you see,” Tom had written in April. “Life is going on as it did last month, six months ago, and a year ago.” On that much we can agree: Life is going on in the country much as it was. Just not for everyone.

Matthew J. Luther

Matthew J. Luther is a writer living in Owosso, Michigan.