COVID-19 is as much, if not more of, an issue for small-town communities. Here’s how one mid-Michigan mayor has been navigating his city through the pandemic.
OWOSSO, Mich.—On a Tuesday in October 2021, Chris Eveleth walked into his office and was greeted by an alarming memento. Attached to his office wall was his calendar. The date? March 2020.
That’s how much time had passed since Eveleth, the mayor of the small mid-Michigan city of Owosso and who by day works as a compliance analyst with Jackson National, an insurance company in Lansing.
“It was like a time capsule,” Eveleth told The ‘Gander.
It was St. Patrick’s Day when Eveleth started doing what many Michiganders have done throughout the pandemic: work from home. It was also that day that Eveleth declared a state of emergency for Owosso, closing City Hall and moving council meetings to a virtual setting.
“It was all kind of unfolding rather rapidly at that point,” Eveleth said.
But those moves were made out of an abundance of caution. Like many Michiganders, Eveleth said the significance of the virus hadn’t quite hit him. That would come a month later, when Owosso, a city of about 15,000 people, saw its first recorded COVID-19 death. Brian Taphouse was just 33 years old when he died from COVID, something Eveleth said put things in perspective.
“[He was] not overweight, [and had] no comorbidities,” said Eveleth, a mayor who doesn’t belong to either political party. “That’s when I knew that it was home, you know. It’s here, and it’s not a distant threat anymore.”
Since the pandemic began, nearly 4,000 people in Owosso have tested positive for the coronavirus, a number that makes up about 43% of Shiawassee County’s total cases.
COVID-19 in Small Town, Michigan
Eveleth didn’t get into local politics to help navigate the city through a pandemic. He was more interested in helping improve the city’s infrastructure, which had fallen on hard times during his time leading up to him becoming a city councilman before eventually being appointed mayor.
In fact, Eveleth, a lifelong resident of Owosso who says he enjoys going to movies at the local theater and kayaking down the Shiawassee River—which flows right through the city’s downtown, past city hall and the historic Curwood Castle—didn’t know he wanted to get into politics at all. He was appointed to fill a spot that opened after a resignation and it just sort of happened, he said.
Eveleth was elected mayor in 2016 and immediately set his sights on fixing the city’s infrastructure, including outdated waterworks and poor roads. But some of those plans changed when the pandemic began.
Like most Michigan communities, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt at home in Owosso. Businesses have closed; others have struggled to survive.
The city also made national headlines for how quickly its COVID-19 cases grew in April. Making things worse? The city is rurally located, and its one health system—Memorial Healthcare—has at point during the pandemic been at capacity due to COVID-19 patients. When that happens, patients trying to go to the hospital for COVID or other medical issues are diverted, either to Lansing or Flint, both of which are another 30 minutes away.
“That is very concerning, because COVID is not the only health problem out there,” Eveleth said. “Flu season is here, as I understand it, or is starting, and that hospitalizes people every year. People have heart attacks, appendicitis and a number of medical emergencies. And when a hospital system is overwhelmed with this one virus then people who need health care could end up paying the price.”
Eveleth says he is encouraged by the emergence of three safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, or at least by those who choose to get vaccinated.
“We’ve lost a lot of people in our community, I think needlessly, who didn’t get vaccinated,” said Eveleth, who himself is vaccinated. “I have seen several examples where someone who was far too young with no comorbidities was lost to the virus, and only then and after then did the family and friends start taking precautions.
“I feel great optimism when you look at the statistics from hospitals who are giving their ICU numbers or their emergency room numbers or the numbers of those lost to the virus and break it down between vaccinated and unvaccinated,” Eveleth continued. “I think all of us can feel optimistic about people who do take the precaution and get the vaccine. I’m not as optimistic for those who don’t.”