Reflecting on one year post-COVID-19 onset

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My mother is a licensed therapist. She would be shocked to know I am still using lessons from her “free therapy sessions” provided during challenges as I was growing up.  

As I look back at this past year, her lessons on the stages of grief ring in my head. My mom would say each stage of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — is normal and necessary to move past the pain.  

I remember when I first started hearing about the COVID-19 outbreak in China. In late February 2020, I met with a CEO whose company has a facility in China.  He said, “Be prepared — it is only a matter of time until this virus makes it to the U.S.”  I didn’t think it would happen. I was clearly in denial.  

My denial didn’t last long when a few weeks later the Ggovernor announced that Michigan was under a stay-at-home order. My phone blew up with calls, emails and texts from concerned business leaders who had no idea how or if they could operate in this current environment.

My team worked literally around the clock to study executive orders, federal and state policies, legal and health recommendations and financial support programs. We became new best friends with our County emergency managers and hHealth Ddepartment leads. They were invaluable to helping us provide clear advice and direction to area employers.

Lakeshore Advantage created a series of weekly flash polls to clearly understand the needs of the business community in real time. We pivoted to a new gap-filling role when we learned that access to personal protective equipment was a huge need for our employers, health care providers, and government officials. 

My team was amazed at how businesses large and small shifted into action. Employers started making hospital gowns and masks. Distilleries produced hand sanitizer and an area startup created a crowd -sourcing platform to make 3-D printed face shields and masks across to donate nationwide. This adrenaline-filled time was exhausting and rewarding. I remember thinking if we just keep pushing harder, faster, the end would be in sight.   

Then, the next stage of grief kicked in — anger. I felt the anger all over the country.  There was anger at our politicians for doing too much and/or not doing enough. There was anger for the tremendous injustice and tragedy with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Riots, protest and political strife could be felt everywhere. There was anger from small businesses, desperate to survive in the midst of shutdowns.

My team was on the receiving end of some of that anger as we worked to administer the first of three small business relief grant programs. We received streams of angry emails from frustrated businesses. The funding could only meet a fraction of the business need.  

We channeled the anger coming our way. We built a transparent grant review committee and process, modifying for improvement after each program. In our second stage of grants, we laser-focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. I am proud to say over 60% of the funding went to diverse business owners, well above the 30% required goal.  

After we completed the Michigan Small Business Restart Grant program in September, I moved into the bargaining phase. I knew our team was pushed beyond the limit reviewing 1,000 grant applications, creating new tools and pivoting to fill the gaps while supporting the needs of their families. I bargained with our team to keep pushing a bit longer, we will soon get to the other side of this pandemic. I bargained with my husband who was bearing all the load of home schooling our three boys. I bargained with myself, privileged and honored to serve the business community, and fortunate for my employment, while feeling the drain that perpetual work and worry causes.

Then, months went by and the second wave hit, along with depression. We faced holidays without our families, and lost people we love. This, for me, was the hardest phase. I knew my job was to keep morale up for my team and our business community, yet it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  

I remember the defining moment that pulled me out of the graey. I received a weekly Spectrum Health Board of Directors email from Dr. Daryl Elmouchi at the end of 2020.  The email closed with a story. He said, “One of our cardiologists told me that when he got the phone call to schedule his vaccine, he and our contact center employee cried on the phone together.  For our teams who have seen so much death, this can be an almost spiritual event.” I sat at my desk crying along with our health care heroes knowing the end was in sight. There was a light at the end of this tunnel. 

Then came acceptance. Part of acceptance for me is accepting that things will never go back to normal. Yet, noticing and appreciating the small things that have returned, like watching my boys play inside basketball and soccer. 

While I don’t remember my therapist-mom telling me what to expect beyond the final stage of grief, I see myself now experiencing deeper appreciation

  • Appreciation for the grit and determination exhibited by West Michigan business and community leaders to persevere and guide their teams through disappointments, pivots and uncertainty while processing their own stages of grief. 
  • Appreciation for our diverse manufacturing base that helped to create some economic stability through the COVID-19 crisis as reported by 120 companies pre- and post-pandemic onset in the regional Business Intelligence Report at bir.lakeshoreadvantage.com.  
  • Appreciation for the scientists and all those involved in manufacturing and distributing the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel vaccine right here in West Michigan.
  • Appreciation for our health departments and health systems that are vaccinating the most vulnerable populations and as supply increases, soon collaborating with employers to administer this vaccine to agriculture and food processing essential workers starting this month.  

My team has accepted that our new normal offers opportunities to laser focus on priorities that matter now more than ever before. These include access and affordability to higher education and high-speed broadband. We appreciate the strengthened and new partnerships built during this crisis as we emerge stronger and smarter, looking forward to an economically vibrant West Michigan future. 

Jennifer Owens is president of Lakeshore Advantage, a nonprofit economic development organization serving primary employers in Allegan and Ottawa counties.

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