Jon Campbell of Detroit was flipping burgers at 15. Now, the 52-year-old McDonald’s franchisee and father of three will use the lure of the Golden Arches to meet another goal — boosting vaccines in a neighborhood where rates are low and hesitation high. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

DETROIT—It was a lie, but Jon Campbell listened with a broad smile anyway.

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

The owner of a McDonald’s franchise on Grand River, Campbell had just invited an older couple placing a food order Wednesday to return the next day for a vaccination event in the parking lot.

The couple had been vaccinated, the woman first assured him. Okay, well, not really, she admitted moments later after he took her order for a Big Mac. She shrugged. She just didn’t want to have to wear a mask, she said.

Campbell’s smile didn’t flicker, even for an instant.

“That’s alright,” he said. “Just come on back tomorrow, okay? We’ll be here.”

Campbell, 52, grew up close to this McDonald’s in northwest Detroit. He was flipping burgers in the 1980s, earned economics and food systems management degrees at Michigan State University, and now owns two McDonald’s in the city and several others in the metro area.

Through a program with Henry Ford Health System and the Detroit-based insurer, HAP, Campbell’s parking lot will become a mobile vaccination site on Thursday, in a zip code where vaccination rates among low-income HAP members are perilously low.

Among all residents here insured by HAP, about 55 percent have had at least one vaccine dose. But among those on HAP Medicaid plans, just 19 percent — one in five — have had a first vaccine dose.

Bridge Michigan talked to Campbell about how the pandemic has affected him personally, and why he’s helping promote vaccines.

Your business is the Golden Arches. Why are you stepping into the vaccine effort?

The safety of our employees, the safety of the customers, the safety of everybody — it’s huge. If we want to have a safe world, and vaccinations by everybody is the way to go, then we’ve got to just do it, to make that turn.

How were you personally affected by the pandemic?

We had to shut down for a period of time, so we lost revenue. But on a more serious note, I mean, it was just people sick — missing work and people dying.

You didn’t have employees who died, I hope?

No, but we had a lot of people come down with COVID, and I did lose my dad and my stepfather last year … to COVID.

I remember going to visit my stepfather, when they were like, “This is almost the end.” I was at the hospital, and you had to cover all up (with personal protective equipment), and you had to go down this ward with this plastic up everywhere. You saw all the ventilators. You couldn’t even tell that people were people, there were so many tubes and everything.”

So fast forward to today. Who hatched this vaccination plan?

They approached the McDonald’s PR people, and my restaurant happens to be in a community that’s highly unvaccinated.

Are you surprised?

I am, in that my friends — we’re all, “You got to get the vaccine” — so it does seem surprising that way. I got mine at TCF (the convention TFC Center in Detroit) as soon as it was available.

And I’m not surprised. There are a lot of people who are hesitant for various reasons. And maybe it’s not all about concerns about the vaccine or the hesitation. Maybe it’s about access too. A friend of mine told me the other day that he and his wife just hadn’t taken the time. They’re doing this, they’re doing that. They’re traveling. I was like “What? What do you mean you haven’t taken the time? Man, get the shot.”

What about your employees?

We put out an incentive —  “Hey, no pressure, but if you get vaccinated you get $25 in your paycheck.” So they got them early; in March, I think.

That was really huge for us to get people vaccinated so we can get people more comfortable and safe in coming to work. Some people just weren’t comfortable coming back.

What are your expectations for tomorrow (Thursday)?

I’m hoping it’s a huge turnout. We’re giving away all smoothie drinks. We’ve got strawberry, lemonade.

Are you picking up the cost for that or is McDonald’s?

We’re all sharing in the cost, but you know what, I can pick up the cost.

It’s not a big deal. We just want the people to come out and get vaccinated and just be safe.

Thursday’s vaccine clinic offers free Pfizer vaccines. It runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at McDonald’s, 21640 Grand River Ave., (near 6 Mile and Lahser) Detroit. Vaccines are free to anyone 12 and older. Those under 18 must have a parent’s or guardian’s permission.

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