(This story was updated at 5 p.m. on July 23.)
WEDNESDAY, July 22 — A petition that aims to close Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub in East Lansing has garnered over 700 signatures as former staff and customers continue to voice concerns over allegedly unsanitary conditions and discrimination at the popular watering hole.
“Harper’s is not a safe place for MSU students to party,” wrote Kyra Wieber, a local resident who started the online petition this week. “They are unaccountable, poorly owned and managed and have clearly put their financial interests above the safety and well being of their customers.”
Harper’s made headlines after at least 187 cases of COVID-19 were tied to its recent reopening — including at least 142 cases among bar patrons or staff. Ingham County Health Department officials have said the worst is over as the number of new cases declines.
As a result, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, which regulates liquor licenses, ordered a hearing, which is scheduled for tomorrow.
That may be why people are speaking up now. Several hundred people would apparently rather the bar stay shuttered as complaints continue to surface over allegedly unsanitary conditions, rats in the kitchen, cocaine dealing, employee harassment, discrimination against Black patrons and a disregard for public safety.
“For the safety and well being of our entire community, Harper’s needs to be closed permanently,” Wieber wrote. “We need to demand better for our students and young adults, refuse to contribute to a business that has harmed the lives of far too many, educate those who are unaware of Harper’s dangers and wrongdoings, and fight for the safety of this community.”
It’s unclear if Wieber is a former employee or simply a dissatisfied customer. She didn’t respond to messages from City Pulse on Twitter earlier this afternoon. But she’s not alone. Several who claim to be former employees have also lashed out online against the management at Harper’s.
Many included allegedly firsthand accounts of unreported sexual harassment, sexual assault, drug dealing, fraud, abusive employees and management and unsanitary conditions. City Pulse couldn’t verify the validity of each claim, but a document attached to the petition lists them all.
One person who claimed to be a server said management forced women to dress in skimpy outfits and encouraged them to wear more makeup. Another said management had actively tried to discourage Black patrons, or the “Lansing Crowd,” from coming inside. Some claimed rap music and certain alcohols like Hennessy and Patron were pulled from the bar as a result.
“I was there less than two weeks because of the disgusting things I witnessed,” said another who claimed to be a former cook. “I got food poisoning while working there, and cannot erase the image of raw chicken on the floor of the walk-in, just gross bacteria leaking everywhere.”
Others claimed to have seen mice running around the kitchen and ants in the fountain drinks. One person claimed that usual cleaning solutions are a substandard mix of lemon and water.
Some women also claimed to have been sexually harassed, or even drugged, by bartenders. At least one person also claimed to have been shortchanged on tips after a grueling, 37-hour shift.
“During the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, many employees voiced serious concerns for their health,” one person wrote. “The owner completely shut down all of our suggestions and refused to get us any safety equipment, sanitizer, masks, gloves or real cleaning products.”
Owners Pat and Trish Riley sent a statement to City Pulse on Thursday afternoon:
“ We are aware of the wildly inaccurate and seriously defamatory claims being circulated online about our venues. We understand these allegations are originating from an individual who was involved in an incident that occurred outside of PT O’Malley’s in September of 2019, where the person spreading these defamatory claims kicked our manager in the stomach. We take these libelous accusations seriously and are consulting with our legal team."
A press release sent last month also emphasized drastically increased sanitation protocols in the wake of the recent outbreak.
The latest data from the Ingham County Health Department shows that at least 187 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. It remains closed this week pending approval from the Health Department to reopen.
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. Dozens 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, health officials contended they only first became aware of the possible contagion risk through a formal complaint filed on June 18. Inspectors arrived that evening.
No problems were identified at a subsequent inspection. 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. Though now subsiding, several dozen other cases were announced the next day and over weeks that followed.
“Their obvious ignorance and defiance of COVID-19 put our entire community at risk and it is highly unlikely they will ever properly adhere to the pandemic precautions and procedures,”
Wieber said. “When, if, they reopen, I am very certain that COVID-19 will spread throughout our campus and school, further delaying a return to in-person classes and a sense of normalcy.”
County Health Officer Linda Vail said the online petition won’t generate anything other than standard procedures. The restaurant — like all others — will be regularly inspected and cited for serious violations. Besides, officials can’t retroactively deal citations for alleged past violations.
“They won’t be able to open until they submit a plan that tells us the steps and measures they’ve taken to be able to safely reopen,” Vail said. “It’s all the things we do for a full-blown inspection. We ensure compliance. If we have a reason to keep it closed, then we’ll do that.”
Vail said it’s not uncommon for bars and restaurants to face a variety of citations for cleanliness issues across Ingham County. They’re typically corrected right away. The owners at Harper’s have voiced plans to ramp up safety and sanitation protocols, but only time will tell, Vail said.
“There are stories out there. I’m not saying they’re not true, I just don’t have any way to go back and look at a complaint about something being dirty,” Vail said, noting that substandard sanitary conditions would be spotted long before the bar reopens and dealt with as usual with citations.
Another petition to “save” Harper’s also carries more than 2,500 signatures. It labels the Rileys as the “sincerest and kindest people” and is largely designed to garner support for the bar. The Rileys also contend a prior version of the petition against their business had been removed from another website for violating community guidelines on defamatory content.