Staff members at a Houston-area hospital walked out on Monday night to protest a policy that requires employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The hospital, Houston Methodist, had told employees that they had to be vaccinated by Monday. Last month, 117 Houston Methodist employees filed a lawsuit against their employer over the vaccine policy.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends health care workers get a flu shot, and some hospital systems require it, few companies have required Covid-19 shots, despite federal government guidance that says employers can mandate vaccines for on-site workers.
Executives, lawyers and consultants who advise companies say that many of them remain hesitant because of a long list of legal considerations the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says must be followed before mandating vaccinations. Some companies say they are wary of setting mandates until the vaccines have received full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, which so far has granted emergency use authorization.
Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who led the Houston Methodist walkout, has cited the lack of full F.D.A. approval for the shots as a reason she won’t get vaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy has been high among frontline health care workers: Surveys showed that nearly half remained unvaccinated as of mid-March, despite being among the first to become eligible for the shots in December. A March 2021 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care workers had concerns about the vaccines’ newness and their possible side effects, both of which are common reasons for waiting to be vaccinated.
By Monday evening, dozens of Houston Methodist employees had gathered outside the hospital system’s location in Baytown, Texas, holding signs that read “VAXX IS VENOM” and “Don’t Lose Sight Of Our Rights.”
“If we don’t stop this now and do some kind of change, everybody’s just going to topple,” Ms. Bridges told local media covering the protest. “It’s going to create a domino effect. Everybody across the nation is going to be forced to get things into their body that they don’t want and that’s not right.”
Those who did not meet the hospital’s vaccination deadline on Monday will be placed on a two-week unpaid suspension. If they still do not meet the hospital’s vaccine requirements by June 21, Houston Methodist will “initiate the employee termination process.”
The workers’ lawsuit accuses the hospital of “forcing its employees to be human ‘guinea pigs’ as a condition for continued employment.”
In a statement, Houston Methodist said that by Monday nearly 100 percent of its 26,000 employees had complied with the vaccine policy. The hospital said it was aware that some employees who had not met the vaccine requirements planned to walk out on Monday, and that they had invited other employees to join them.
“We fully support the right of our employees to peacefully gather on their own time, but it is unacceptable to even suggest they abandon their patients to participate in this activity,” the hospital said. “We have faith that our employees will continue putting our patients first. It is unfortunate that today’s milestone of Houston Methodist becoming the safest hospital system in the country is being overshadowed by a few disgruntled employees.”
On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed a law prohibiting businesses or government entities in the state from requiring vaccine passports, or digital proof of vaccination, joining states such as Florida and Arkansas. It’s unclear how or if the new law will affect employer mandates like Houston Methodist’s.
In some industries, including aviation, employers are taking a middle-ground approach. Delta Air Lines, which is distributing vaccines out of its flight museum in Atlanta, said in May that it would strongly encourage current employees to get vaccinated and require it for new hires.
United Airlines, after considering a blanket mandate, said last week that it would require anyone hired in the United States after June 15 to provide proof of vaccination no later than a week after starting. Exceptions may be made for those who have medical or religious reasons for not getting vaccinated, the company added.
Amid criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus during one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India said in a nationwide address on Monday that the federal government would play a bigger role procuring vaccines on behalf of states. It’s a process that had been mired in confusion because of squabbling between the central and state governments and a lack of vaccine supply.
Mr. Modi said that his government would increase both the pace of inoculations and the purchasing of vaccines. Less than 4 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people have been fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database.
“The government of India will procure 75 percent stock from vaccine manufacturers and provide it to states,” he said. “That means, no state governments will have to spend anything on vaccines.”
Many Indian states had earlier vowed to vaccinate their populations for free, particularly those ruled by parties in opposition to Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, but they were forced to close vaccination centers after they ran out of supplies, a problem plaguing the entire country as infections continue to spread. Mr. Modi also announced free inoculations for all Indians above the age of 18, a policy that was earlier reserved for frontline workers and people above the age of 45.
The prime minister and his government have come under heavy criticism over their handling of the pandemic. Mr. Modi and members of his party appeared at political rallies and allowed mass gatherings to take place before the country experienced a devastating second wave of the pandemic.
Mr. Modi has kept a relatively low profile since his political rallies in April, in contrast with his frequent live addresses during the first wave of the pandemic last year, when he announced a nationwide lockdown four hours before it took effect.
Last week, the country’s top court asked the government to explain how it planned to achieve its own target of inoculating about 900 million adults by the end of the year. It also called out the government for allowing private health facilities to charge people under 45 for vaccinations, calling the policy “arbitrary and irrational.”
Mr. Modi said in his address that private hospitals will still be allowed to procure 25 percent stock of the vaccines. State governments were required to ensure that only 150 rupees or a little more than $2 could be levied as a “service charge” over and above the usual price, he said.
On Monday, India’s health ministry reported more than 100,000 new cases and 2,427 deaths. Though the number is high, it was lower than it was in May when the country was reporting more than 400,000 cases a day. India’s official numbers are believed to be a vast undercount, especially at a time when the virus is spreading to rural areas where testing is limited.
“We are seeing how every single dose of vaccines is so important,” Mr. Modi said. “A life is attached to each dose.”
Extending the government’s assistance program for poor households beyond the months of May and June, Mr. Modi announced free distribution of food to over 800 million households every month until November. “The aim of this effort is to make sure no countrymen or their families are forced to go to bed hungry,” he said.
Mr. Modi also took aim at his opposition, who he blamed for “political mudslinging.”
“It is the responsibility of every government, every public representative, to ensure that vaccinations are done with full discipline, that we are able to reach every citizen, as per the availability of vaccines,” he said.
As part of its strategy to vaccinate more of its population, Washington State will allow adults to get a free marijuana joint when they receive a Covid-19 vaccination shot.
The state’s liquor and cannabis board announced on Monday that the promotion, called “Joints for Jabs,” was effective immediately and would run through July 12.
The board said it would allow participating marijuana retailers to provide customers who are 21 or older with a pre-rolled joint when they receive their first or second dose at an active vaccine clinic at the retail location. The promotion applies to only joints, and no other products, like edibles.
So far in Washington, 58 percent of people have received at least one dose, and 49 percent are fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database.
Washington is not the only state to offer a cannabis promotion. Arizona recently announced a similar campaign, providing free marijuana joints or gummy edibles to Arizonans 21 and older who receive a vaccination shot.
Washington’s liquor and cannabis board recently allowed for a free beer, wine or cocktail to residents with proof of vaccination.
Since the U.S. pace of vaccinations began to decline sharply in mid-April, states and cities have started promotions like free beer in New Jersey and a raffle to win full-ride college scholarships in New York and Ohio. Several states have held lotteries awarding cash prizes of $1 million or more.
Andy Slavitt, a White House virus adviser, has said the Biden administration was encouraging states to get creative — including lotteries or other financial incentives — to get people vaccinated. The federal government is allowing states to use certain federal relief funds to pay for those types of programs.
Experts are concerned that states across the U.S. South, where vaccination rates are lagging, could face a surge in coronavirus cases over the summer.
A dozen states — many of them in the Northeast, including Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut — have already reached a benchmark of at least 70 percent of adults with at least one vaccine dose, a goal President Biden has set for the nation to make by July 4. But in the South, that marker is nowhere in sight for several states.
In 15 states — including Arkansas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana — about half of adults or fewer have received a dose, according to a New York Times analysis last week. In two states, Alabama and Mississippi, it would take about a year to get one dose to 70 percent of the population at the current pace of adult administration.
Public-health experts and officials in states with lower vaccination rates say the president’s benchmark will help reduce cases and deaths but is somewhat arbitrary — even if 70 percent of adults are vaccinated, the virus and its more contagious variants can spread among those who are not.
But they remain concerned that their residents are more susceptible to infection as restrictions ease across the country, the sense of urgency to get vaccinated declines and many Americans in warmer climates avoid the heat by heading indoors, where the virus spreads more efficiently.
If there is a summer surge across the South, experts believe it won’t be as grave as last summer’s because at least some people are vaccinated and treatments have improved. But memories of last summer, when cases rose quickly after some Southern states rushed to reopen, are still fresh. Younger people, who are less likely to be vaccinated, will be the most vulnerable during any surge this summer, said Dr. Edward Trapido, an epidemiologist and associate dean for research at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health. While death or severe illness is not as common for young people with Covid-19, it’s still possible, he said.
“The surge is not likely to end up tying up hospitals, and causing lots of deaths,” Dr. Trapido said. “There are certain populations that are undervaccinated, and that’s where we will expect to see a rise.”
To avoid a summer surge, states across the South need to catch up to those in the Northeast which have already gotten at least one dose to 70 percent of their populations, according to Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine.
“We’re just we’re not even close to that in the Southern states,” Dr. Hotez said. He said he foresees a new wave in the South because “we’re so underachieving in terms of vaccination.”
Mississippi, for example, has the country’s lowest vaccination rate, with 34 percent of the population having received at least one shot. Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi said on Sunday that despite the low vaccination numbers, case numbers indicated the risk of contracting Covid-19 in his state was low.
Another worry is testing. But Dr. Trapido said a decline in testing would make it difficult to contain outbreaks ahead of a potential summer surge.
Nationally, the number of daily tests reported is down significantly. On Thursday, about 316,000 tests were performed, far below the winter peak when more than two million tests were being administrated some days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We don’t have so many people rushing for testing because all the messaging is about vaccines,” Dr. Trapido said. “It’s important to remind people that if you’re concerned, it’s worth getting tested.”
Even statewide figures that appear promising can gloss over local problem areas, Dr. Joseph Kanter, the top health official in Louisiana, said in mid-May. In Louisiana, less than 20 percent of people in some parishes have received a first dose.
“We’ve got a significant percentage of Louisiana that has initiated, but it’s not herd immunity,” Dr. Kanter said, referring to the share of the total population that needs to acquire resistance to the virus to slow transmission. “It’s nowhere close to it.”
Lazaro Gamio and Amy Schoenfeld Walker contributed reporting.
World Health Organization leaders on Monday detailed what has become the pandemic norm in much of the world: widespread declines of coronavirus cases and deaths in places where many people are vaccinated, but the potential for rampant outbreaks in countries where vaccines remain scarce.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the W.H.O., said at a news conference that the total numbers of new known deaths and infections had declined worldwide for several weeks, but that deaths were rising in parts of the world that lack vaccines, like Africa and Latin America.
The heart of the problem, he said, was the gulf between rich countries that have the vast majority of doses and low-income countries that have very few, creating what he called “a two-track pandemic”
“The inequitable distribution of vaccines has allowed the virus to continue spreading, increasing the chances of a variant emerging that renders vaccines less effective,” Dr. Tedros said, adding that “the biggest barrier to ending the pandemic remains sharing: of doses, of resources, of technology.”
He noted that 44 percent of the world’s vaccine doses had gone to high-income countries, while low-income countries had administered only .4 percent, adding that “the most frustrating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in months.”
At the World Health Assembly last month, Dr. Tedros called for an international push for all countries to vaccinate 10 percent of their populations by September, and 30 percent by the end of the year.
“To reach these targets, we need an additional 250 million doses by September, and we need 100 million doses just in June and July,” he said on Monday.
There has been some progress on securing doses and donations — the United States has committed to sending 80 million doses abroad by the end of June, and last week different nations pledged to donate tens of millions more and $2.4 billion to worldwide vaccination efforts — but so far there has been nowhere near the number of doses for which much of the world has been clamoring. About 11 billion doses are needed to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population, according to estimates from researchers at Duke University.
A sense of normalcy has begun to spread in some parts of wealthier countries, like the United States, where more than 50 percent of the population is at least partly vaccinated and where federal guidance recently changed to advise inoculated people that they can choose to go maskless in most situations. As more states have moved to reopen, people have flocked to sporting events and other gatherings, even though the virus remains a threat to the unvaccinated.
Reopening gradually was prudent, Dr. Tedros said, noting that “with the increased global transmission of variants of concern including the Delta variant, lifting restrictions could be disastrous for those who are not vaccinated.”
Dr. Tedros also called for pharmaceutical companies to teach other manufacturers how to produce their vaccines, and for lower-income countries to develop vaccine manufacturing facilities, which would also help with future outbreaks.
“Sharing vaccines now is essential for ending the acute phase of the pandemic,” he said. “But it’s also clear that in an emergency, low-income countries cannot rely solely on imports of vaccines from wealthier nations.”
New York will lift most of its remaining pandemic-era restrictions on businesses and social settings once 70 percent of the state’s adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Monday.
The governor said that reaching the threshold would signify the end of restrictions on capacity limits, social distancing, disinfection protocols and health screenings. Instead, it would become optional for stores, restaurants, offices, gyms, hair salons and other businesses to impose such health precautions on their premises.
He said, however, that the state would abide by mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some restrictions would also continue in schools, public transit, homeless shelters and large venues, as well as correctional and health care facilities.
“When we hit 70 percent we will be back to life as normal,” Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, said during a news conference in Manhattan. “Or as normalized as you can be post-Covid.”
So far, 68.6 percent of New Yorkers over 18 have received at least one shot, he said. Mr. Cuomo said reaching 70 percent would depend on the state’s efforts promoting the vaccine in ZIP codes with low vaccination rates, but he estimated the state could reach the threshold in as soon as eight days.
Even after the state hits the threshold, businesses could still choose to require masks and six feet of social distancing, precautions that state health officials strongly recommend in indoor setting where it may be unclear who is vaccinated.
The announcement was the latest effort by Mr. Cuomo to accelerate the state’s economic reopening while also incentivizing people to get a vaccine as inoculation rates in the state, and the country, have tumbled.
Last week, the state ended the midnight curfew on indoor dining for bars and restaurants, a major milestone in the state’s recovery that eliminated one of the most burdensome rules on the restaurant industry. Twenty-four-hour subway service also resumed on May 17.
Bars and restaurants were allowed to operate at 100 percent capacity on May 19, but certain precautions, such as social distancing, were left in place if all patrons were not vaccinated. Restaurants, for example, currently must either place tables six feet apart or separate them with physical barriers.
Currently, businesses are still required to have hand hygiene stations, specific air filtration systems and protocols to disinfect surfaces at least once a day. The social gathering limit in the state is 250 people for indoor settings and 500 for outdoors, limits that can currently be bypassed if everyone shows proof of vaccination.
To coax New Yorkers to get vaccinated, state officials have also opened vaccination sites at subway stations, raffled off college scholarships and given away free baseball game tickets.
Mr. Cuomo has also encouraged entertainment venues, such as sports arenas and concert halls, to require that most, if not all, attendants be fully vaccinated. More than 58 percent of adults in the state were fully vaccinated.
The easing of restrictions comes as the state’s coronavirus metrics have improved markedly after a winter holiday resurgence and more people have gotten vaccinated.
The seven-day average positivity rate statewide was 0.51 percent on Monday, the lowest since the pandemic began, the governor said. And the number of people currently hospitalized because of the virus dropped to 799, the lowest level in months.
Also on Monday, Mr. Cuomo said that while children will be required to wear mask indoors at schools for the remainder of the school year, it will be up to local school districts to decide whether children will be required to wear masks outside.
New York City officials said they planned to continue the city’s universal mask policy at schools, but would abide by any changes in C.D.C. mask and social distancing guidelines.
Uganda’s president has introduced new lockdown measures in an effort to tackle surging coronavirus cases.
President Yoweri Museveni announced the closure of all schools and universities for 42 days starting Monday and suspended public gatherings and prayers in mosques and churches. Public transportation between and across districts will also be barred for 42 days, starting Thursday to allow students who are in school to get home. Mr. Museveni also banned house parties and said bars, cinemas and concerts would remain closed.
The announcement on Sunday evening came as the country — which imposed tight restrictions early in the pandemic but had eased measures as cases dropped — recorded an upsurge in cases in recent weeks. On June 4, the East African nation recorded 1,259 cases, its highest number in a single day. The authorities reported long lines at hospitals in recent days, with Mr. Museveni saying the wave was mostly affecting people between the ages of 20 and 39 and that there was increased transmission among those ages 10 to 19.
“We are concerned that this will exhaust the available bed space and oxygen supply in hospitals, unless we constitute urgent public health measures,” Mr. Museveni said in his speech.
Health officials said that the virus is surging because people aren’t washing hands and wearing face masks. Mr. Museveni also pointed to new variants — specifically those first reported in India, South Africa and the United Kingdom — increasing cases.
Overcrowding in schools and lack of adequate sanitation facilities has also spread the virus. As part of the new directives, all teachers will have to be fully vaccinated before they are allowed back into schools.
With more than 44 million people, Uganda has so far inoculated over 748,000 people, with just over 35,000 of them fully vaccinated. As in much of Africa, its vaccine program has been slowed down by global vaccine shortages, with the crisis in India particularly threatening supplies.
Mr. Museveni said on Sunday night that the country was expecting to receive 175,000 doses from Covax, the global initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines. The government, he said, was also waiting on another vaccine shipment: “300,000 doses of Sinovac vaccine donated by our friends, the Chinese government.”
In other news around the globe:
After more than a year of not reporting coronavirus cases and casting doubt on the efficacy of vaccines, Tanzania has given approval for doses to be flown in — but only for foreign embassies and international organizations. The vaccine imports, which will be coordinated by the Ministry of Health, will only be used to inoculate the citizens and staff of these embassies and organizations, the presidency said in a statement last Friday. The move is one of a series of gradual steps taken by President Samia Suluhu Hassan. Ms. Hassan has broken with her predecessor, John Magufuli, who played down the virus and died in March after suspicions that he had contracted it. Ms. Hassan formed a coronavirus commission which last month recommended the country publish data on the virus and join the Covax facility to import vaccines.
Also on Monday, Russia announced that its one-dose Sputnik Light vaccine had been approved for use in the Republic of Congo, which had already approved the two-dose Sputnik V vaccine.
Restaurants, pubs and cafes in Ireland reopened on Monday for outdoor drinking and dining as the country makes its way out of one of the strictest and most sustained lockdowns in Europe. The easing of restrictions also permits cinemas and theaters to reopen and gyms and swimming pools to return for individual exercise. Weddings may now have a maximum of 25 guests. The government last week permitted hotel stays for the first time since December, but those looking forward to drinking a pint inside a pub will have to wait a few weeks: Indoor hospitality resumes on July 5.
In Germany, anyone 12 or older is now officially eligible for a vaccine appointment. The country had been prioritizing the elderly, those with medical conditions and frontline workers. So far, 45.7 percent of the population has had one dose, with 21.3 percent fully vaccinated. Getting an appointment in the first weeks of widened eligibility may be difficult: The authorities expect a run on the shots.
In Mexico, Felipe Calderón, a former president, was hospitalized with Covid-19. In a tweet, the Mr. Calderón said his oxygen levels were fine and that his outlook looked favorable. The former Mexican president had announced on Twitter that he had tested positive for the virus on June 1.
Anna Schaverien Christopher F. Schuetze and Kaly Soto contributed reporting.
This is an excerpt from the Morning newsletter.
Britain has had one of the world’s most successful Covid-19 responses in recent months.
Unlike the European Union, the British government understood that quickly obtaining vaccine doses mattered more than negotiating the lowest price. Unlike the United States, Britain was willing to impose nationwide restrictions again late last year to reduce caseloads. British officials also chose to maximize first vaccine shots and delay second shots, recognizing that the strategy could more quickly reduce Covid cases.
Thanks to these moves, Covid has retreated more quickly in Britain than in almost any other country. Fewer than 10 Britons per day have been dying in recent weeks, down from 1,200 a day in late January. On a per-capita basis, Britain’s death rate last month was less than one-tenth the U.S. rate.
Despite this success, Britain is now coping with a rise in Covid cases. The main cause appears to be the highly infectious virus variant known as Delta, which was first detected in India. Britain’s recent moves to reopen society also likely play a role.
The increase is a reminder that progress against the pandemic — even extreme progress — does not equal ultimate victory. Britain’s experience also suggests that cases may soon rise in the United States. “What we’re seeing in U.K. is very likely to show up in other Western countries soon,” The Financial Times’s John Burn-Murdoch wrote.
In December, British researchers discovered that a new variant was sweeping through their country. When it arrived in other countries, the variant, now known as Alpha, tended to become more common in its new homes as well. By April, it had become the dominant variant in the United States, and it has remained so ever since.
Alpha’s swift success has left scientists wondering how the variant conquered the world. A new study, which was posted online on Monday and has not yet been published in a scientific journal, points to one secret to its success: Alpha disables the first line of immune defense in our bodies, giving the variant more time to multiply.
“It’s very impressive,” said Dr. Maudry Laurent-Rolle, a physician and virologist at the Yale School of Medicine who was not involved in the new study. “Any successful virus has to get beyond that first defense system. The more successful it is at doing that, the better off the virus is.”
Gregory Towers, a virologist at the University College London, and his colleagues grew coronaviruses in human lung cells for the study, comparing Alpha-infected cells with those infected with earlier variants of the coronavirus.
They found that lung cells with Alpha made drastically less interferon, a protein that switches on a host of immune defenses. They also found that in the Alpha cells, the defensive genes normally switched on by interferon were quieter than in cells infected with other variants.
Somehow, the immune system’s most important alarm bells were barely ringing in the presence of the Alpha variant. “It’s making itself more invisible,” Dr. Towers said.
As the United States edges closer to President Biden’s goal of a 70 percent vaccination rate, many people are beginning to wonder how long their protection will last.
Although many scientists estimate that the vaccines authorized in the United States will last at least a year, no one knows for sure. It’s also unclear whether emerging variants of the coronavirus will change our vaccination needs.
Here’s what scientists know so far.
How do Covid-19 vaccines stack up against others in terms of protection?
Early signs are encouraging. Researchers have been drawing blood from volunteers in vaccine trials and measuring their levels of antibodies and immune cells that target the coronavirus. The levels are dropping, but gradually. It’s possible that with this slow rate of decline, vaccine protection will remain strong for a long time. People who were previously infected and then received the vaccine may enjoy even more durable protection.
Will some Covid vaccines last longer than others?
Scientists have already found that vaccines using different technologies can vary in their effectiveness. The strongest vaccines include Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, both of which are based on RNA molecules. Vaccines relying on inactivated viruses, such as those made by Sinopharm in China and Bharat Biotech in India, have proved somewhat less effective.
How will we know when our vaccines are losing their effectiveness?
Scientists are searching for biological markers that could reveal when the protection from a vaccine is no longer enough to hold back the coronavirus. It’s possible that a certain level of antibodies marks a threshold: If your blood measures above that level, you’re in good shape, but if you’re below it, you’re at greater risk of infection.
What about the variants?
The emergence of variants in recent months has accelerated research on boosters. Some variants have mutations that led them to spread swiftly. Others carry mutations that might blunt the effectiveness of authorized vaccines. But at this point, scientists still have only a smattering of clues about how existing vaccines work against different variants.
Seeking a grand symbol of New York’s revitalization after a brutal pandemic year, Mayor Bill de Blasio is planning a large-scale performance by multiple acts and has called on Clive Davis, the 89-year-old producer and music-industry eminence, to pull it together.
The show, tentatively set for Aug. 21, a work in progress, with no artists confirmed, though Mr. Davis — whose five-decade career highlights have included working with Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys and Whitney Houston — said he was aiming for eight “iconic” stars to perform a three-hour show for 60,000 attendees and a worldwide television audience.
Mr. de Blasio said in an interview that the concert was part of a “Homecoming Week” to show that New York City is coming back from the pandemic — a celebration for residents and those in the region who may not have visited in a while.
The show would be the latest in a storied tradition of Central Park super-productions that tend to attract worldwide coverage and to paint New York as a peaceful, cosmopolitan haven for the arts.
Many New Yorkers, especially the mayor, may welcome that view after the prevalence of pandemic-era images like a deserted Times Square and boarded-up storefronts amid last summer’s protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
The two farm stands lie just 12 miles apart in Elk Rapids, Mich., along Route 31, a straight, flat road running through a bucolic wonderland of cherry orchards and crystalline lakes.
Yet when one stand instituted a no mask, no service rule last July and the other went to court to combat the state’s mask mandate, they set in motion a split that still ripples across Antrim County.
Differences that had always simmered beneath the surface were inflamed by the pandemic and pushed many people in places like Antrim County into their tribal corners. Now the molten flow of anger over the presidential election and virus mitigation measures is hardening into enduring divisions over activities as simple as where people buy their fruit.
Friske’s and King’s are two of the most popular farm stands — both low, red, wooden barnlike structures with white trim. Friske’s, which bills itself as “Not Your Average Fruit Stand,” features a bakery and a store stuffed with curios as well as everything needed to make pie. King’s is more homespun, with apples displayed in wooden baskets; customers are encouraged to pick their own fruit from the orchards.
Last summer, the Friske family sued Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, arguing that wearing masks should have remained a personal choice.
When the State Supreme Court nullified a series of the governor’s Covid-related executive orders in October, it effectively tossed out her mask mandate and made the lawsuit moot. Michigan’s health department issued a mask directive, which the Friske Farm Market defied until the state threatened to revoke its business license.