A Michigan county thought it largely dodged the pandemic. Then Dave and Paul Ebels died.


FALMOUTH, MI — It’s been 12 weeks since David Ebels died of COVID-19 at age 57.

It’s been eight weeks since his 53-year-old brother Paul died of the virus.

As co-owners and operators of Ebels {Hardware} in Falmouth, they had been two of essentially the most well-known residents of Missaukee County, distinguished members of a distinguished household.

Whereas most of Michigan is celebrating the winding down of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ebels’ tight-knit, rural group continues to be reeling from the deaths and attempting to make sense of it.

For some, the takeaway message has to do with the mysterious methods of God, and belief within the redemptive powers of Jesus Christ.

For others, it’s a cautionary story a few group that considered the pandemic with skepticism, solely to pay a lethal worth.

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And for nonetheless others, it has to do with the capriciousness of the COVID-19 virus. Certainly, the story of the Ebels brothers features a essential twist that places their deaths right into a a lot totally different context and exhibits how the pandemic can defy simple narratives.

It’s additionally a microcosm into Michigan’s 2021 spring surge, and the painful story of how so many communities and households entered March pondering that they had dodged a bullet throughout the pandemic, solely to be crushed by tragedy simply as vaccinations had been providing a approach out.

“Our group has been rocked.” mentioned the Rev. Dirk Koetje, pastor of Prosper Christian Reformed Church in Falmouth, whose members included Dave and Paul Ebels. “We’ve discovered classes. We’ve been humbled. We’re within the means of selecting up the items.”

The guts of ‘stunning downtown Falmouth’

Missaukee County is situated within the northwest Decrease Peninsula, simply east of Cadillac, south of Kalkaska, and about 45 minutes from Traverse Metropolis.

In inhabitants, Missaukee ranks 61st among the many 68 counties within the Decrease Peninsula with about 15,000 residents. The county contains the cities of McBain and Lake Metropolis.

The realm was settled within the late 19th century by Dutch immigrants, a few of whom got here immediately from the Netherlands and a few by means of Dutch settlements within the Grand Rapids space. Many had been farmers, however Missaukee additionally had a burgeoning timber trade that supplied an alternate.

Greater than a century later, Missaukee nonetheless displays its Dutch heritage, from the predominance of blond hair and blue eyes, to the Dutch surnames, to the Christian Reformed church buildings that dot the area.

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Very similar to the Zeeland-Holland space of West Michigan, Missaukee residents are usually evangelical Christians who extol the virtues of religion, household and a robust work ethic. However whereas Ottawa County has change into an prosperous, fast-growing a part of metro Grand Rapids, Missaukee has remained a sparsely populated farming group. Final November, 76% of Missaukee voters backed Donald Trump, making it the No. 1 Michigan county in Trump assist.

“It is a very rural, very conservative county,” mentioned Star Hughston, a Missaukee County commissioner. “Not in a foul approach. Simply everybody works tremendous exhausting. Simply very hard-working.”

Koetje, who has 5 younger youngsters, calls it “among the best locations on the planet to lift a household. Folks love each other. They care about each other. They meet others’ wants when there’s a necessity. Principally, it’s small-town America.”

Lots of the households have been right here for generations, together with the Ebels.

“Whenever you speak about names which have been round endlessly right here, Ebels is one in every of them,” Hughston mentioned. “All people is aware of them.”

Again in 1920, Chris Ebels — great-grandfather of Dave and Paul — opened Ebels {Hardware} and Farm Implements on Most important Road within the unincorporated city of Falmouth.

Chris Ebels billed it as “The Greatest Little Retailer in Missaukee County,” and he wasn’t improper.

Immediately, the Ebels household has a sprawling retail advanced alongside Prosper Street. To the extent that folks come to Falmouth and even know of its existence, it’s largely due to the Ebels.

Dave and Paul and their three different silblings — Steve, Mark and Mary — are all distinguished residents of Falmouth.

David and Paul and their wives ran Ebels {Hardware}, a mammoth operation that sells every thing from farm gear to weapons to sweatshirts to typical {hardware} inventory.

Throughout the parking zone from the ironmongery store, Mark and his spouse and youngsters oversee Ebels Common Retailer and Ebels Meat Market, identified for its Little City Jerky. Duane’s Restaurant, which is also a part of the advanced, was began by the siblings’ Uncle Duane Dick and Aunt Carolyn in 1978,

Mary and her husband function Nice Lakes Dairy Provide, a dairy distribution firm down the road. Steve, the oldest of the 5 siblings, is the Clam Union Township clerk.

Prior to now decade, the Ebels — notably Mark Ebels — have change into even higher identified via tv commercials through which they urged individuals all through northern Michigan to go to their shops in “stunning downtown Falmouth.”

Whereas TV turned Mark Ebels into considerably of a neighborhood celeb, Dave and Paul had excessive profiles, too.

At 6-foot-10, Dave was the extra dominant presence, each bodily and by way of character. He was a jokester, one that appreciated to tease in good enjoyable, but in addition somebody who continuously shared about his Christian religion.

Paul was quieter, however “very variety, beneficiant and at all times an advocate for the underdog,” mentioned his daughter, Abby DeZeeuw. “Individuals who by no means felt they belonged wherever else at all times knew he would make area for them.”

They had been true group leaders, Koetje mentioned.

Dave and Paul had been “very well-respected, very well-liked,” Koetje mentioned. ”They had been huge supporters of this church, our native Christian faculty, huge supporters of the being pregnant useful resource middle in Cadillac. Large supporters of loads issues financially as nicely.

“They had been profitable businessmen who had been very beneficiant.”

Nevertheless it went past deep pockets Koetje mentioned,

“Folks felt comfy round them,” he mentioned. “They’d have individuals who go in there and share their issues — like, my marriage is breaking down, or this, that or the opposite — and infrequently they might go within the again and pray with individuals. So that they had a approach of assembly individuals’s wants. Not simply their enterprise wants, however their private wants.”

The pandemic

Enterprise really went up on the Ebels’ shops throughout the pandemic, mentioned Bob Ebels, the son of Mark Ebels and one of many members of the family who runs the Ebels Common Retailer and the Meat Market.

However many Missaukee County residents chafed at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s dealing with of the pandemic and her administration’s emergency orders and mitigation methods.

“It’s fairly anti-Whitmer right here,” Bob Ebels mentioned.

Ask Missaukee residents about compliance with the masks mandate throughout the pandemic and so they giggle. Many have harassed “widespread sense”: Don’t get too near individuals; wash your arms; keep dwelling whenever you’re sick. The rationale for masking — it’s an airborne virus through which these contaminated are most contagious earlier than they present signs — usually has been misplaced within the swirl of misinformation over the previous yr.

A part of it’s politics. However a part of it, too, is simply the tradition of northern Michigan communities, the place libertarian sentiments run deep; self-reliance and resilience are prized virtues, and other people are likely to downplay sickness and accidents.

Missaukee residents “knew the pandemic was actual,” Hughston mentioned. “However they weren’t going to vary their entire lives over it.”

As soon as Prosper Christian Reformed Church resumed providers after the spring 2020 shutdown, Koetje didn’t impose a masks mandate and few congregants wore them, he mentioned.

An enormous a part of it that it was exhausting for them to see fellow church members as posing a well being threat, he mentioned.

“A part of it’s, ‘hey, we’re a household.’ The individuals round right here do worth — perhaps to a fault typically — with the ability to smile at each other,” Koetje mentioned, including with amusing, “And so they additionally worth individuals not telling them what to do.”

Bob Ebels mentioned he usually wore a masks, however didn’t stress his clients about it. “We’ve obtained indicators up (concerning the masks mandate) however now we have companies to run, too,” he mentioned. “I don’t have workers to chase after individuals to say, ‘Put your masks on.’ That’s simply how we performed it.”

And the reality is, for a lot of the pandemic, Missaukee County appeared impacted far more by the varied shutdown orders and restrictions than the virus itself.

The county reported solely 114 circumstances complete via the primary six months of the pandemic. Whereas circumstances surged over the winter and there have been 16 deaths between November and January, the bulk had been amongst aged individuals together with eight deaths at long-term care services.

The overall sentiment was that COVID-19 was basically a priority for aged individuals or these unwell. For individuals who prided themselves on wholesome residing and a robust immune system, the virus didn’t appear to pose a lot of a threat.

It helped that Missaukee residents are likely to stay “socially distance anyhow,” Koetje mentioned. And Missaukee isn’t in the identical scenario as Cadillac or Traverse Metropolis, the place locals fearful about hoards of vacationers bringing within the virus.

And even when native residents had been catching the virus, it didn’t appear to be that severe throughout the first yr of the pandemic, Koetje mentioned.

“We had some unhealthy individuals in our church get it, and so they beat it comparatively simply,” he mentioned.

“That begins inflicting individuals to let their guard down to some extent,” he added. “Because the vaccine was getting rolled out, I really had a dialog on the finish of February, like, ‘Hey, I believe we’re past’ ” the pandemic.

However Koetje spoke too quickly.

“Then March got here, and we obtained hammered,” he mentioned. “At one level, I believe we had been one of many high 5 counties within the nation” in new coronavirus circumstances.

The Ebels

Ebels {Hardware} was among the many Missaukee County companies that didn’t implement the state’s masks mandate.

Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director for the District 10 Well being Division, mentioned the well being division obtained periodic complaints concerning the retailer. “It was not good,” she mentioned.

Nevertheless it wasn’t nearly politics for Dave and Paul Ebels.

The Ebels have a household medical historical past of listening to loss. Paul was profoundly deaf and communicated via lip studying.

“In order that’s one side of story that’s not so easy,” Koetje mentioned. “Life was inconceivable for Paul when individuals wore masks.”

“Uncle Paul couldn’t have a dialog with you for those who had a masks on, interval,” mentioned Bob Ebels.

Abby DeZeeuw, Paul’s daughter, mentioned her “greatest stressor all through the COVID-19 disaster was the information that my dad’s ears required each particular person he talked with to take down their masks so he may learn their lips.”

“There was no different approach for him to ‘hear’ and proceed to function the enterprise,” she mentioned. “I at all times knew he would get COVID, however I prayed that he can be one of many fortunate ones who would make it via unscathed.”

In March, DeZeeuw’s worst fears got here true.

The B.1.1.7. variant of the virus swept via Missaukee County. As a way more contagious pressure of COVID-19, it meant that communities with low masks compliance had been notably hard-hit. The B.1.1.7. variant additionally resulted in a pointy spike in deaths and hospitalizations amongst youthful adults.

The spring surge was “profoundly totally different” than Missaukee’s earlier experiences with COVID, Bob Ebels mentioned.

“Over the course of the primary yr of the pandemic, we didn’t have one particular person from our congregation go to the hospital due to COVID,” Koetje mentioned. “Then we had six individuals throughout the first two weeks of March. So it was a unique ballgame, and that was eye-opening for us.

“It was scary,” he added. “I had by no means felt scared the entire time, however this was like, whoa.”

At ages 57 and 53, Dave and Paul had been in essentially the most susceptible age group for the spring surge — too younger to be vaccinated because the surge hit however sufficiently old to be at greater threat for extreme COVID.

Quickly after coming down with signs in early March, the brothers had been each hospitalized in Cadillac.

“Once they had been first admitted to the hospital, I assumed, OK, they’ll get via it,” Bob Ebels mentioned. “However then the information got here on (March 24), and it turned actual. It turned actual actually quick.”

On March 24, the households had been instructed that each Dave and Paul wanted to be airlifted to Grand Rapids for extra specialised therapy. Paul, particularly, was in vital situation. However then Dave instantly took a flip for the more severe and died earlier than the airlift may happen.

“It was surprising,” Bob Ebels mentioned. “I used to be in Florida on the time and once I obtained the textual content, I dropped to my knees and yelled out loud. I couldn’t consider it.”

Paul made it to Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids, however died April 20.

The ironmongery store is now being run by the brothers’ widows and their grownup youngsters, Bob Ebels mentioned. “They’re sorting it out, however these had been huge footwear to fill.”

To not point out the massive, emotional wallop of dropping two members of the family to a virus that didn’t even exist two years in the past.

“It’s a troublesome, robust scenario,” Bob Ebels mentioned. “However we’re a Christian household and we consider that we’ll see them once more and we’ll be reunited.

“We consider God’s obtained a plan for every thing, and on the day that Uncle David and Uncle Paul had been born, God knew the day that they had been going to die. And if that’s what he had deliberate. we are able to’t change that.”

The fallout

Whereas the Falmouth group was surprised by the loss of life of the 2 Ebels, it hasn’t appear to vary many minds about masking.

Even at Dave Ebels’ funeral service in late March, when lower than 20% of Missaukee adults had been utterly vaccinated, a majority of individuals in attendance weren’t sporting a masks.

In speaking about masking, Missaukee County residents continuously reference the significance of “respect,” and particularly being respectful of differing opinions on masks.

“Folks listed here are simply actual respectful of everyone’s selections,” Hughston mentioned. “Some individuals put on a masks and a few don’t.”

It’s a irritating stance for Morse, the county medical director.

The Ebels’ deaths “are the form of issues that break your coronary heart,” she mentioned. “Whenever you see such resistance (to mitigation methods), these differing opinions, after which you’ve gotten one thing occur that might have been preventable.”

However, whereas the deaths didn’t shift opinion about masking, it seems to have spurred a rise in vaccinations.

At this level, 48% of Missaukee residents age 12 and older have had at the least one dose of vaccine. That’s under the state common of 55%, however above the 43% common among the many 16 counties the place Trump obtained at the least two-thirds of the vote in November 2020.

Amongst these most vocal advocates for vaccinations in Missaukee County has been Steve Ebels, Dave and Paul’s older brother and the native township clerk.

Steve helped set up an April 10 vaccination clinic in Falmouth and in addition promoted an April 21 clinic on the township corridor.

“I simply merely don’t want another households to expertise the ache and loss we discover ourselves in,” Steve posted on his Fb web page concerning the April 21 clinic, which ended up occurring a day after Paul’s loss of life.

Greater than 230 Missaukee residents obtained their first doses of vaccine on these days, state data present.

The Ebels additionally held a clinic at their retailer for workers, Bob Ebels mentioned, and everyone of their prolonged household who’s eligible for photographs has been immunized.

His uncles’ deaths “actually opened individuals’s eyes” concerning the COVID-19 vaccines, Bob mentioned. “To have two deaths of pretty distinguished guys locally, proper in a row like that, I believe lots of people had ideas about not getting it, however then figured I’d higher simply get it achieved.”

However even with the advocacy of the Ebels’ household, vaccinations stay a sensitive topic for a lot of in Missaukee. Koetje didn’t get vaccinated himself till the tip of Could, saying he lastly determined after physician instructed him the percentages of a foul end result from COVID-19 had been far far greater than the possibilities of a foul response to the vaccine.

Nonetheless, “As I used to be sitting within the ready room, they handed me paperwork that mentioned, ‘It is a trial vaccine. It has not been accepted by the FDA,’ ” Koetje mentioned. “That caught my consideration.”

The pandemic generally and the loss of life of Dave and Paul Ebels particularly have made for a tough yr, Koetje mentioned.

One of many points that folks in his congregation have grappled with is the function of God within the pandemic.

“We have now a agency perception within the sovereignty of God, that nothing occurs other than God,” he mentioned. “However that doesn’t imply you need to be silly. It doesn’t imply it is best to take pointless dangers. At occasions, understanding the place the road is drawn between pointless threat and (religion in God) has been tough for all of us up to now yr.”

Nonetheless, “trying again over the previous yr, I don’t know that folks would have achieved issues otherwise” if provided that likelihood, he mentioned. “Perhaps they wouldn’t. Perhaps they might.

“However a yr later, I believe all of us would say which are some issues that we obtained proper and there are some issues we obtained improper.”

Extra on MLive:

As Michigan claws its approach towards 70% vaccinated, we requested each state lawmaker the place they stand

Why is it tough for some to ditch the masks post-vaccination?

After creating uncommon blood clots publish coronavirus vaccine, Michigan man desires extra consciousness



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