A QAnon-Curious Mom Helped Lead Michigan Back to COVID Hell
Michigan is dealing with coronavirus variants and right-wing restaurateurs. It’s also dealing with a very specific kind of rebel.
DETROIT—Jayme McElvany was at it again.
A junior wrestler at Lakewood High School in western Michigan had been asked to comply with a state-mandated quarantine after close contact with another student who tested positive for COVID-19. McElvany, an anti-lockdown activist in the state, seized on his case as her latest cause célèbre even as the coronavirus pandemic in Michigan reaches new heights.
“GUYS!!!! One of our wrestlers that we donated to yesterday already got a hearing!! Right now!! At 11:30! Here’s the link to watch Jimmy fight for this kid!!” McElvany wrote on Facebook Wednesday, namechecking local defense lawyer James Thomas. “PRAY for a VICTORY!!... Please Lord stand with Jimmy and help him touch the heart of this judge... for the sake of this child and many more like him. In Jesus name AMEN!!”
The quarantine mandate would have forced the teenager to forfeit his shot at a state championship. But from the chambers in her rural central Michigan courtroom, Barry County Judge Vicky Alspaugh cited the weight of the public health implications at play before ultimately ruling in favor of allowing the student to wrestle as long as he tested negative for COVID-19 prior to the Friday match.
The teen was just one of a number of student-athletes who sought to duck quarantines in order to participate in high-school competitions despite an alarming resurgence of the virus in Michigan over the last month. But far more important than the ambitions of any teenager, experts say, is an unhinged right-wing pressure campaign against safety restrictions. On one hand are the state’s hardline Republican leaders and their cadre of anti-lockdown activists like McElvany, a QAnon-curious mom and activist leading the charge for school sports that experts say is feeding the new outbreak.
On the other is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The Democrat’s strict pandemic orders may have saved thousands of lives even as they inspired a far-right kidnapping plot against her. But she has also come under fire for what critics describe as buckling to political pressure and loosening restrictions on activities that are now playing a role in stoking a concerning fourth wave, including lifting the ban on indoor school sports in February.
“Any sport where people are in close contact and gathering together, it’s very difficult to do it safely,” Georgetown University law professor and global health expert Lawrence Gostin told Daily Beast.
Gostin, a strong proponent of keeping schools open if at all possible, said the state erred in its decision to resume indoor contact sports in high schools, especially without mandated routine testing protocols like professional athletes. “It’s highly irresponsible to do that,” he said.
Gostin expressed similar views about the state’s decision in January to open up indoor dining, saying: “That’s a serious mistake.”
The state has seen its COVID rates skyrocket in recent days, with more than 6,000 new cases reported Wednesday and Thursday. With a positivity rate around 15 percent, Michigan now enjoys the dubious distinction of having the most cases per capita nationwide. The surge comes as state health officials have warned that a significant number of outbreaks and cases associated with the March surge are tied to schools, primarily extracurriculars like sports.
“The largest number of outbreaks are in K-12 school settings,” Sarah Lyon-Callo, the epidemiology director at the state health department, said during a press conference last month. She noted that spread was minimal in classrooms and coming instead from extracurricular activities.
“We are certainly identifying outbreaks that are associated with sports,” Lyon-Callo added.
As of early this week, there were more than 270 outbreaks tied to Michigan schools, with the state reporting an additional 70 outbreaks in their weekly update on Monday, and hundreds of students infected.
Critics of Whitmer say what the state is experiencing now should come as no surprise, given lax enforcement of masking and other rules she imposed—and her allowing sports to resume without mandated testing for athletes in the first place. As high school sports’ COVID problem became clear in recent weeks, the state did impose a new mandate for weekly testing that will go into effect on Friday, nearly two months after competition resumed.
“The key word there is indoor,” Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, told The Daily Beast. “We have multiple examples now from the CDC where we know sports, the wrong kind of sports—indoors, with close contact, especially without masks—can spread [the virus].”
A spokesperson for Gov. Whitmer did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the state health department cited the U.K. variant as contributing to spread, and noted the new safety measures imposed on school sports.
"The state is moving forward with plans to ramp up testing for schools, businesses and nursing homes,” they told The Daily Beast. “We are expanding a mandatory testing protocol for all student athletes. And we have increased our vaccine program over the last couple of weeks."
Even as they took issue with the governor, her critics seemed to implicitly acknowledge the effectiveness of right-wing activists.
“We pulled on the heartstrings—‘These kids need to play’—and the emotional, that’s what resonates,” Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler, a podiatric physician specializing in sports medicine and an associate professor of exercise and sport science at Wayne State University in Detroit, told The Daily Beast.
McElvany, organizer of the activist group Let Them Play, was leading that charge.
A broad range of voices expressed support for letting kids play winter sports. But McElvany, a mom from Milan, Michigan, monopolized much of the local news coverage. In a matter of days, she raised more than $50,000 for the cause via an online fundraiser.
In addition to having a child who plays high school sports, McElvany’s Facebook activity grabbed attention with posts about the Jan. 6 rally-turned-riot in Washington, D.C., and COVID disinformation. On the morning of Jan. 6, her rhetoric mirrored QAnon conspiracy theories, with a post saying “it’s gonna be the most shocking day in American history today… Everyone needs to be ready for what’s about to be revealed.” There is no evidence McElvany took part in the insurrection.
A now-deleted Facebook group called “Jayme’s Wake Up Call” was taken down after the Michigan Advance inquired about it in January. In it, McElvany promised “the most up to date info I have about the election fraud, the virus, Biblical truths, the cabal, the political corruption, world corruption, end times, child sex trafficking, NWO [New World Order]… all the important stuff!”
McElvany has previously denied being a QAnon adherent, and when The Daily Beast reached her by phone this week, she said she was out at a birthday party for her son. She also asked if the outlet was conservative or liberal, and said she was concerned about speaking publicly without first consulting her attorney. She did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.
Of course, McElvany wasn’t alone, and Whitmer has claimed the activist’s group did not influence her. Among those beating a similar drum: Detroit’s public school district superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who publicly urged the governor to loosen rules, claiming hundreds of Michiganders were already leaving the state to play sports.
According to Vitti, the idea that school districts were preparing to open for instruction on March 1, but not sports, was a contradictory message. Like Let Them Play, Vitti warned of legal action, saying parents, athletes, and coaches were already in conversation with attorneys.
“Please do not let this frustration reach the level of a lawsuit against you and the state,” he wrote. Vitti did not respond to a request for comment.
Whitmer initially pushed back, responding to the growing chorus against the state order barring indoor contact sports with sympathy, but declining to change it. The more contagious B.1.1.7—or U.K.—variant of the coronavirus had just arrived in the state via a student at the University of Michigan, and cases were detected in the Big Ten School’s athletic department, bringing sports to a halt and forcing the campus into lockdown.
A few days later, a Republican lawmaker introduced legislation to lift the suspension on school sports. The movement was gaining momentum and more than a thousand people attended a Jan. 30 Let Them Play protest at the state capitol, including a former Detroit Red Wings hockey star and the son of Republican Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.
Then Let Them Play filed suit against the state health department, claiming the order violated the constitution’s equal protection clause.
Two days later, Whitmer relented, allowing winter sports to resume with an order that mandated mask wearing and quarantines for exposed athletes. Still, it stopped short of requiring routine COVID testing except for sports where masks could not be worn—a stipulation that applied only to wrestlers.
According to Hew-Butler, who has followed the restrictions and openings around sports in Michigan closely over the course of the school year, the state needed to mandate and enforce routine testing, on par with the programs in professional and college sports, if it wanted to avoid the kind of outbreaks they’re recording now.
“You have to know what’s out there,” she said.
Of course, the right-wing pressure campaign derailing COVID safety in the state has come in many flavors, and much of the defiance remains at longtime hot spots like bars and restaurants.
Ian Murphy owns the Iron Pig, a barbecue restaurant and bar in Gaylord, which Murphy himself acknowledged is one of the state’s COVID hot zones. He decided to open during last winter’s lockdown, and promptly had his liquor and food licenses revoked by the state.
Numerous administrative hearings later, Murphy—who was lambasted by some for selling “Kiss Me, I’m Contagious” T-shirts at the Iron Pig for St. Patrick’s Day this month—was ordered to pay a steep fine, and got his operating licenses back in mid-March.
In other words, just as the local school districts and sports teams were battling outbreaks. Otsego County now has one of the highest rates of per-capita COVID infection in the state.
Murphy said there haven’t been any known cases of COVID at the Iron Pig over the past year, but that he had two employees who were exposed to the virus quarantine voluntarily this week “out of an abundance of caution.”
Whitmer has also been criticized over her January move to re-open indoor dining; the state’s health department director Robert Gordon signed off on the new order, but abruptly announced his resignation just hours later.
While rebellious restaurants have garnered much of the spotlight, and public ire, in the winter wave, the loosened restrictions and school-related outbreaks appear to have given people like Murphy new cover.
“I'm not a doctor, I'm not an epidemiologist,” he told The Daily Beast, noting that he does not have kids of his own. “But anecdotally, to me, it seems like students, at almost any level, may be the ones that are really the spreaders of it.”
“There are plenty of parents I know personally that are really blaming the student-athletes in our town for this recent outbreak,” he added.
This weekend, families from school districts across the state will be returning from Spring Break vacations and others will likely be traveling or gathering for Easter. The final rounds of state championship playoffs will take place for several sports—albeit this time with the new testing mandate in effect.
In St. Clair County, one of Michigan’s current hot spots located in the rural eastern area of Michigan known as “the Thumb”, the health department and local school district are hosting a “Welcome Back Spring Breakers” event on Sunday. It will consist of a mass, drive-up COVID testing clinic all afternoon at a local stadium.
Meanwhile, if Whitmer thought she had placated the teen sports crowd, she was wrong. On Thursday, Let Them Play filed a lawsuit over the more rigorous sports safety protocols. And some of the governor’s critics fear the worst is yet to come.
“We’re already on the exponential increase,” Hew-Butler, the Wayne State sport-science professor, said. “I’m worried that we get to the same place, where it’s gone so far into the community where it continues to spread, and then we’re going to end up with a lot of people in hospital and the hospitals are going to be overwhelmed.”
“I think that’s what everybody’s watching now.”