Detroit, still clawing back from financial crisis, reels as coronavirus claims lives

"It seems like one after another after another, and it's just hitting close to home," one city leader said.
Detroit has seen a swift increase in coronavirus infections over the last week, with more deaths than in some larger cities.
Detroit has seen a swift increase in coronavirus infections over the last week, with more deaths than in some larger cities. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; AFP - Getty Images

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By Erin Einhorn

DETROIT — The police officers, high school students and longtime residents who gathered for breakfast March 6 had a common purpose: improve their corner of the city.

Marlowe Stoudamire, a dynamic community leader and entrepreneur, led the discussion at the Police & Pancakes event on the city's east side. He flashed a daunting list of challenges on a screen — unemployment, domestic violence, drugs, homelessness — then asked the roughly 100 participants to discuss solutions.

"We all agreed that we need to become more involved, more engaged, more vocal and to be supportive of one another," said Willie Bell, an elected member of Detroit's Board of Police Commissioners. "It was a very uplifting and positive forum."

But as people around the country have painfully learned in the weeks since Stoudamire led that community discussion, the list of challenges he named was incomplete.

Not mentioned was the coronavirus that was likely lurking in the room that day. The virus would follow some of the police officers back to their precinct — at least three who attended later tested positive, the Detroit Free Press reported, and dozens were quarantined — and would ride with others that weekend to churches and restaurants and family gatherings.

Several people who attended a March 6 Police & Pancakes event hosted by the Detroit's 9th police precinct later tested positive for the coronavirus. Detroit Public Safety Foundation

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people around the world but it has taken a particularly painful toll on Detroit, where the growing list of deaths includes some of its most prominent citizens: state Rep. Isaac Robinson, 44; Capt. Jonathan Parnell, 50, the police department's homicide chief; and Dwight Jones, 73, a legendary high school basketball coach.

Also on that heartbreaking list is Stoudamire, 43, a champion of Detroit who was a father of two young children. He died March 24.

"It seems like one after another after another, and it's just hitting close to home," said Luther Keith, a former columnist and editor for the Detroit News who is now the executive director of ARISE Detroit!, a coalition of 400 churches, block clubs and community groups. "It seems like everybody knows somebody who died."

State Rep. Isaac Robinson, 44, is among prominent Detroiters who have died from the coronavirus. Sarah Rahal / Detroit News via AP file

'Here we go again'

Michigan has seen a swift and dramatic increase in coronavirus infections over the last week, with the number of confirmed cases and deaths now among the highest in the nation. Those cases have been heavily concentrated in Detroit and its suburbs, with the city recording 97 deaths as of Thursday.

Detroit has seen more deaths than even larger cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, and some Detroiters say the city's history makes the crisis feel more personal — and its consequences more severe.

Detroit, rocked by job losses as the auto industry faltered, has seen roughly a third of its population leave in the last 20 years alone, continuing a population slide that began in 1950 when the thriving city had 1.8 million residents. Today, it has fewer than 700,000. Its public schools have been hobbled. Some of its neighborhoods have been hollowed out, replaced by overgrown fields and burned-out homes. In the years before the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history freed the city from some of its most crippling debts, much of Detroit's 139 square miles were pitch black at night, its streetlights broken and dark. Emergency services were so strained that, for years, residents never knew if an ambulance would come when called.

The people who stayed in spite of all of that weren't just those without the resources to leave, Keith said. People stayed because they had deep ties to their neighborhoods, their churches and their schools.

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"Detroit was the last on every list," he said. "The worst city to live in, the highest crime rate, the highest poverty rate, the lowest education, but all of these people stayed here. They kept working. They kept raising their kids, educating them, trying to maintain their neighborhoods when no one else believed and no one else cared."

That common experience forged ties across the city, he said, especially among African Americans, who comprise nearly 80 percent of the city's population.

Many Detroiters have large interconnected networks built through families, churches and schools. So when someone dies, the impact can be felt across the city, Keith said. "It's very personally jarring."

The Detroit TCF convention center was converted into a field hospital to treat coronavirus patients. Emily Elconin / Reuters

The headlines about Detroit had finally begun telling a different story as the bankruptcy brought new money and attention to the city. There were new investments, especially downtown, blight remediation efforts and a newly empowered school board. Now, as the coronavirus has threatened public health, shut down businesses and put huge numbers of people out of work, Detroiters worry that progress could disappear.

"I did feel like we'd turned a corner," said Al Elvin, who leads the Detroit chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest African American fraternity. "We were starting to get some restaurants and businesses sprouting up, and now here we go again with something like this."

His fraternity has lost a number of members in Michigan, including Bassey Offiong, a 25-year-old college student who was about to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering. Elvin knows others who have died, are sick or have been hospitalized.

He worries especially about the city's most vulnerable residents, those who hadn't yet seen much benefit from the economic turnaround. Even before this crisis, a third of Detroiters were living in poverty.

"A lot of the Detroit community had not recovered from the last crisis before the next crisis is taking them," said Jeffery Robinson, the principal of Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, an elementary and middle school that lost one of its staff members this week.

That staff member was Thomas Fields, 32, who had come back to Detroit after serving in the Navy, determined to help kids at the school he attended as a child, Robinson, who had been one of his teachers, said. "That he was a little boy I met when he was in the fifth grade is adding to the heartbreak."

With the state on lockdown and schools closed, Robinson, 51, can't easily connect grief counselors with his young students as they cope with the loss. In his own life, he can't visit his mother, who is in the hospital, fighting the virus, or his sister, who was just released from the hospital to make room for sicker patients.

And the thing that Detroiters have most relied on to get them through past difficulties — coming together as a community to support one another — is much more difficult now than it was before, he said.

Still, Robinson, who is also the pastor of a church on the city's east side, remains hopeful that the crisis will draw more attention to the urgent needs of people in the city, such as children attending schools that he believes are grossly underfunded. With Michigan schools ordered to remain closed for the rest of the school year, many of those children are now struggling to get enough to eat, let alone keep up with their school work.

"I'm confident that on the other side of this crisis, there will be lessons and experiences that hopefully we learn from and we'll be better people for it," he said.

A Detroit business announced it was closing after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all residents to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.Seth Herald / AFP - Getty Images file

'We are survivors'

As the number of infected Detroiters has climbed rapidly in recent days, President Donald Trump and national health leaders have flagged the city as a new center of the virus.

That triggered what the city's mayor, Mike Duggan, called "disturbing" news reports that connected Detroit's surge in infections to its high poverty rate, or suggested that Detroiters weren't taking care of their health.

"There is no evidence that the coronavirus checks your bank account before it jumps to you," he said, listing affluent cities that have been hit hard by the virus.

Public health leaders say lower-income people of color, like many residents of Detroit and of other cities seeing high rates of infections, such as New Orleans, are often disproportionately affected by health and social threats. In Michigan, African Americans comprise just 14 percent of the state's population but accounted for 35 percent of coronavirus infections and 40 percent of deaths, according to data the state released for the first time on Thursday.

One day earlier, Duggan dismissed the notion that race or economics are the issue. Detroit has been hit hard because "somebody brought the virus into this community early on. It spread in this community before we knew it was happening."

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Regardless of the reason, that spread has been swift, hitting many parts of the city and infecting city leaders, including City Council President Brenda Jones and police Chief James Craig.

Craig is just one of 106 police department employees who had tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, Duggan said. Another 524 officers and 123 civilian employees are quarantined because they'd had contact with someone who was infected or because they had a fever when they showed up to work.

That's put roughly a fifth of the police department out of service. And while 911 calls are down significantly because most Detroiters are staying home, these few weeks have been trying for the department.

"We have multiple people that are doing doubles, sometimes three or four days in a row," said a 911 dispatcher who asked not to be identified because she wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "It's mentally exhausting, physically exhausting. Sometimes we don't get breaks. We don't eat."

A 38-year-old 911 operator was one of the first in the city to die from the virus March 23. His death rattled his colleagues, the dispatcher said, making an already stressful job even more so.

"We're side by side answering the phones, so it's like a battle in your mind," she said. "Is this the day I'm going to start experiencing symptoms? Or is this going to be the last day I'm sitting next to this person?"

The police department has peer counselors who work with officers and employees who need support, said Bell, the elected police commissioner who attended the March 6 pancake breakfast.

The department has been hit hard, he said, but he's been impressed by how well it has handled the crisis.

"We haven't missed a beat in terms of responding" to calls, said Bell, who served on the Detroit police force for 32 years before retiring in 2003. "They're deploying officers who don't normally work patrol. They've made adjustments."

Police are trained to respond to emergencies and will come through this one, he said, adding that the same is true of Detroit itself.

Detroiters "have a different fiber" compared to people from other cities, Bell said. "We are fighters. We are survivors and we have stood the test of time."

CORRECTION (April 2, 2020, 6:05 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article stated that O'Neil D. Swanson died of the coronavirus. His cause of death has not been reported.