At least two dozen large bars and restaurants across Greater Lansing have been ordered to temporarily limit capacity to 75 patrons as local officials continue to track a growing COVID-19 outbreak tied to the recent reopening of Harper’s Restaurant & Brewpub in East Lansing.
Under an Ingham County Health Department order issued this week, bars and restaurants that have already been limited to half-capacity under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order must further restrict both indoor and outdoor dining and drinking to a total of no more than 75 guests.
According to city officials, the recent restriction applies only to bars and restaurants capable of seating more than 150 people — including at least 16 in East Lansing and eight in Lansing.
The goal: Reel back some drunken chaos — especially in college towns like East Lansing — and allow restaurants to better enforce precautions on social distancing and face coverings. And if that doesn’t work, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail is prepared to order a shutdown.
“The bottom line is that these businesses hold in their hands the ability to keep themselves open,” Vail told City Pulse. “I had two choices: Close bars and restaurants or further restrict them to where it can be safe. I really don’t want to have to do more, but I have that authority.”
The latest data from Ingham County Health Department shows that at least 118 confirmed coronavirus cases have been tied to staff and patrons who visited Harper’s between June 12 and 20. The popular college bar reopened on June 8, just as soon as it could under state orders.
None of those infected — most of whom are in their 20s — have been hospitalized. About a half-dozen of those infected are reportedly Harper’s employees. Most of the others are customers. At least 14 are people who were later exposed to the coronavirus by other guests.
Despite widespread reports of tight lines forming in front of the bar and maskless patrons roaming freely inside, Vail maintained that her office only first became aware of the possible contagion risk through a formal complaint filed on June 18. Inspectors arrived that evening.
“We sent people there literally as soon as we received the report,” Vail added.
Vail’s team said they didn’t notice any problems at 6 p.m. on a Thursday. Tables were spaced six feet apart, staff wore masks and very few guests were dining inside at the time. Less than a week later, on June 22, Harper’s “voluntarily” closed after a staff member tested positive. Dozens of other cases were announced the next day and over the week that followed.
And although the closure was voluntary, Vail said Harper’s can’t reopen without her permission.
“This is not completely on them, but I believe there’s some responsibility for Harper’s,” Vail said. “They didn’t require masks. They didn’t require people to stay six feet apart. There was no attempt to do any of that. They just moved the tables six feet apart and opened up the doors.”
Vail explained that because health inspectors didn’t spot any glaring safety concerns and only two cases had been identified after an initial complaint was filed, nothing warranted its closure. Whitmer’s orders also only mandate a temporary closure when an employee exhibits symptoms.
Whitmer’s precautionary executive orders also mandate that residents wear masks in public, but there is no enforcement mechanism or criminal penalty for a failure to do so. Restaurants and bars must require they be worn by guests before they’re seated away from others at a table, but Vail said that neither the Health Department nor Police Department has resources to do patrols.
As a result, formal complaints filed against businesses — like the one filed against Harper’s on June 18 — are the only mechanism that would trigger Health Department inspectors to step in. Businesses and customers are otherwise largely entrusted to keep themselves safe, Vail said.
“These businesses themselves are the largest enforcement arm that we actually have to make sure these precautions are followed,” Vail added. “Businesses have the authority to deny entry to anyone without a face covering. This capacity order just helps make it more manageable.”
The owners of Harper’s, Pat and Trisha Riley, haven’t offered any apologies for their role in the outbreak, but they sent a statement that recognizes they take their responsibilities “very seriously.”
“We have taken every measure to not only meet, but exceed, local, state and federal guidance for reopening during this COVID-19 health pandemic, which has been confirmed by the Ingham County Health Department,” they said in a statement, noting they only closed to ramp up safety.
Vail clarified that her office didn’t spot any problems at 6 p.m. June 18, but she has since gathered evidence to suggest that staff did very little to enforce social distancing inside the bar. The notion that county officials “signed off” on the protocol at the bar is misleading, Vail said.
Among the changes at Harper’s: A new line management system will help control city sidewalk lines “that we have no control or authority over,” the Rileys said. Employees will be tested. A new air filtration system is being installed. An enhanced screening process will be in place.
Customers will also be required to wear masks upon entry and can only remove them once seated at their table. Staff must wear them at all times. Additional cleaning procedures are being put in place. Hard plastic barriers have also been installed on tables within six feet of each other.
Vail said those types of precautions should go a long way in mitigating any continued spread.
The Rileys — who have since hired a public relations firm — didn’t respond to additional questions, namely about what type of role that management plays in responsible crowd control. A spokesperson for the bar and restaurant assured City Pulse they’re busy working on safety.
Meanwhile, cases tied to the local watering hole have continued to explode across the state.
Bridge Magazine reported that among the early customers were students from the Grosse Pointes, with at least one of the students helping spread the virus by attending a house party in Grosse Pointe Woods, a second outbreak where people did not wear masks or stay socially distant.
The mayor of New York City cited the recent outbreak at Harper’s when announcing that he may delay the reopening of indoor dining within the city, the Lansing State Journal reports.
According to The New York Times, certain places seem to lend themselves to superspreading. A busy bar, for example, is full of people talking loudly. Any one of them could spew out viruses without ever coughing. And without good ventilation, the virus can linger in the air for hours.
As a result, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered bars, gyms, movie theaters and water parks to close for at least 30 days as the state surges as a leading national epicenter of COVID-19. Governors in Oregon and Kansas have also announced mandatory face coverings for residents.
Vail said bars are still inherently a high-risk activity, and guests must recognize the dangers.
East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier, who is presumably growing tired of watching her city’s name pop up in national headlines for bad news, said the city needs to work in tandem with Michigan State University to better convince young people to “buy into” protective measures like masks.
“Neither the Health Department nor the city could do anything until cases showed up,” Beier said. “Once they did, the county was able to shut Harper’s down. The new restriction should have been part of the original executive order. My guess is the governor will see that soon.”
Beier thinks the newly reduced capacity at local bars and restaurants will go a long way toward preventing another outbreak like the one still unfolding at Harper’s. It’s a combination of stronger governmental regulation and enhanced personal responsibility that dictates the future, she said.
“I hope that we develop a set of expectations and get every entertainment venue in the city to sign on to it,” Beier said. “We’re also going to work with MSU on messaging to young people.”
Area bars & restaurants lose capacity after Harper’s incident
Local bars and restaurants capable of seating more than 150 people are forced to reduce their capacity to 75 people or less. Two dozen bars are impacted by the order. We compiled a list organized by standard capacity.
Spartan Hall of Fame Cafe, 175
Bistro 43, 180
Riviera Cafe, 194
Applebee’s (East Lansing), 198
P.T. O’Malley’s, 198
Los Tres Amigos, 208
Green Door, 238
Beggar’s Banquet, 251
Dublin Irish Square Pub, 253
Buffalo Wild Wings, 275
Nut House, 290
The Avenue, 300
Harrison Roadhouse, 344
Reno’s East, 352
Rick’s American Cafe, 353
The Loft, 360
Harper’s Restaurant & Brewpub, 500