Sep. 23, 2021
MACKINAC ISLAND — In the end, the color-coded bracelets didn’t matter.
Hugs and handshakes — sheer habit, really — mostly won out over carefully calibrated COVID protocols at the first in-person Mackinac Policy Conference in 28 months.
Vaccines were required. Masks were (sometimes) in place. Bowls of rubber bracelets invited attendees to signal their level of comfort with contact — green (hugs/handshakes OK), yellow (fist or elbow bumps only) and red (back off, buddy.)
I took one of each. As a first-time Mackinac attendee, it seemed prudent to be prepared for anything — or anyone.
Inside of an hour, all that was out the window.
It’s human nature. When you see friends, colleagues and business associates in real life after 18 months of interminable Zoom calls, nobody’s checking under suit coat sleeves for a green light to go in for a hug. Many just … do.
So goes the new world of networking — and “normal” business interaction in the pandemic age.
Was it necessary to convene this year for cocktails, canapes and schmoozing on the storied porch of the Grand Hotel? Maybe not. Plenty of folks skipped the downsized conference this year for plenty of legitimate reasons: COVID concerns, corporate optics, schedule conflicts.
But Mackinac is more than a social event. It’s a signal that Michigan is still open for business, and that the state’s very real problems — infrastructure, equity, education, labor shortages — aren’t simply sleeping until the pandemic goes away. Like or not, policy is still made in person, and building relationships matters.
“It feels good to be back,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, sporting both green and red bracelets, said during her keynote address Wednesday. “It’s definitely different, but it feels good to be back.” She added: “I’ve got both wristbands.”
So maybe the bracelets were overkill. Or silly. We’re making it up as we go, trying to feel our way forward, socializing with no roadmap. The point is to try.
The theme of normalizing life amid pandemic was echoed by author and economist Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” in his own conference address earlier Wednesday.
“We need to learn to live with this,” Florida said of the pandemic. “We not only need to learn to live with it, we need an intentional and purposeful strategy… I call this a great urban reset. Covid 19 is not a disruptor, it’s an accelerator.
“We will survive this, and not just all of us. Our cities. Detroit will survive this.”
It was an upbeat message for an audience looking for a way forward.
I joined Crain’s Detroit Business on March 16, 2020 — the day we all went home due to COVID. I’ve met plenty of business leaders via Zoom since then, and at a few small, subdued events. We’ve done some valuable and creative virtual programming, and will continue to do so.
But nothing beats human connection — and the chance to meet those Zoom contacts in real life.
Here’s hoping we can all stay healthy in the meantime.