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East Lansing Bar Linked to COVID-19 Outbreak Reveals Plan for Safer Reopening During State Hearing

The owners of Harper’s Restaurant & Brew Pub met with the state liquor control commission on Thursday to explain the events that led to 188 COVID-19 cases in Michigan

Hand of bartender pouring a large lager beer in tap.  Master1305/Shutterstock
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Owners and attorneys for Harper’s Restaurant & Brew Pub in East Lansing met with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission on Thursday to discuss situation that led to a massive COVID-19 outbreak tied to the bar and defend their liquor license.

After a lengthy review of the evidence from the outbreak, commissioners at the show-cause hearing determined that Harper’s could open after reviews and inspections by the Ingham County Health Department and commissioner Geralyn Lasher. A specific timeline for that possible reopening was not provided, though owners Patrick and Patricia Riley detailed multiple strict measures they planned to take to better control college-aged crowds and manage social distancing and mask use in the event of a reopening.

Harper’s has been the subject of local and international scrutiny for an outbreak last month that led to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases across multiple counties — primarily among younger people. Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail confirmed during the hearing that 188 cases of the disease caused by novel coronavirus were traced back to the Michigan State-area bar. Of those cases, 144 were considered “primary,” representing patrons that visited Harper’s or worked for the restaurant in the days prior to its voluntary closure in June. Six of those cases were Harper’s employees. An additional 44 cases were identified as “secondary,” meaning they were among people who had contact with others who likely contracted COVID-19 after a visit to Harper’s.

The situation as well as other examples of community spread at Michigan bars and nightclubs, prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to halt indoor service for bars everywhere but northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Ingham County also enacted stricter measures than the state on dine-in capacity in response to the Harper’s outbreak: Ingham County bars and restaurants were required to limit dine-in capacity to 75 people or 50 percent capacity, whichever is fewer. Vail has since loosened requirement to 125 people or fewer.

Images and videos taken by reporters at Harper’s in the days prior to the confirmed outbreak showed throngs of customers lined up outside the bar without masks on and not social distancing. Indoors, people were seen out of their seats, dancing, and gathering in groups without masks or social distance.

While there was some debate over the dates the photos and videos were taken, the Patrick Riley stated that the images were shot on the first night Harper’s opened, Monday, June 8, and represented the restaurant’s “learning curve” during the reopening for dine-in service. Riley stated that the bar was not anticipating the crowds that eventually gathered on Harper’s first night open. Riley said that shortly after the videos were taken, he returned to the bar to help staff enforce social distance in the line. Harper’s had previously released a statement that staff had difficulty managing the crowds gathering to come inside the restaurant.

The Rileys reiterated problems with crowd control during the hearing, stating that they had placed social distancing markers on the premises and on the city sidewalk outside the bar but were hindered by an outdoor dining space that had closed down the street in front of the business.

Attorneys for the bar and Patrick Riley both stated that the bar was following the rules as they had interpreted them from state executive orders. Riley said that he believed restaurants and bars were only required to post signage that customers should wear masks when not seated and was not aware that they were required to enforce those rules for patrons. He also claimed that the Centers for Disease Control guidelines on mask use were still ambiguous in June. Health officer Vail disagreed with Riley’s statements regarding masks, noting that health officials around the country had been in relative agreement on mask use since April and that she had issued local rules for mask use prior to the reopening of bars and restaurants.

Riley also said he was unclear on whether the executive orders stated that gathering on dance floors was prohibited. At least one Greektown area club owner cited similar confusion over rules regarding dance floors in an interview with Crain’s in June. “None of us have ever been in a pandemic before,” Riley said, stating that he had reviewed guidance from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, the CDC, and the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association before opening Harper’s. “I personally wish we had recognized the issues of groups of people getting up from a table and going and dancing,” Riley said.

Health officer Vail noted in her statements to the commissioners that while the wording of orders might not have been “explicitly clear,” the COVID-19 guidelines regarding handwashing, social distancing, gathering in groups, and mask use were self-explanatory. It’s “not really accomplishing anything, if people get up and leave those tables” without masks or social distance, she said.

Some commissioners pushed back on Patrick Riley’s claims that the executive orders weren’t specific about how to manage dine-in spaces and lines, citing portions of executive orders in place at the time that suggested customers wait for tables in their cars rather than gathering in common areas. Those orders have since been updated for clarity and new orders have been issued regarding mask requirements. “You were open for 12 days,” commissioner Lasher stated at one point in the hearing. “Did you do things to change and to adapt?”

Patrick Riley responded that the bar did eventually do things to help improve social distancing including moving large tables onto the dance floor and bolting down outdoor seating so customers couldn’t move furniture. He added that the bar voluntarily decided to close Saturday, June 20, prior to being notified of the first cases associated with Harper’s in order to focus on developing a virtual line management app. When Harper’s was informed by the county about the first cases, the restaurant owners immediately reached out to employees to notify them of possible exposure.

As part of the measures to make sure Harper’s reopens more safely, the owners must submit their reopening plan to Ingham County Health Officer Vail and commissioner Lasher and receive a full inspection by Vail with an evaluation of the restaurant’s compliance with COVID-19 executive orders. Harper’s owners outlined multiple measures they planned to take to make the business safer including:

  • Opening for outside service-only first
  • Implementing an app to manage lines virtually and assist with contact tracing
  • Banning the use of e-cigarettes
  • Removing seating at the bar area to reduce any potential customer contact with glassware
  • Eliminating loud music
  • Installing sanitary door openers
  • Providing 70-percent alcohol hand wipe packets to guests at the end of each service
  • Encourage employees to get regular COVID-19 testing and offering to pay for that testing
  • Promotions that encourage patrons to get tested

In his final statements, Patrick Riley told commissioners that he hopes others would learn from the situation at Harper’s and how coronavirus can steal a business’s good reputation. He says many owners in East Lansing are “terrified because of what happened.” He adds: “It’s been a message that’s been heard loud and clear.”

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East Lansing Bar Owners Must Present Reopening Plan to the State Following COVID-19 Outbreak [ED]
Outbreak Connected to East Lansing Bar Balloons to 85 Cases, Spreads to Grosse Pointe Area [ED]
Coronavirus Cases Tied to Michigan Bar Are a Reminder of the Risks of Pandemic Dining [ED]
Ingham County Reduces Restaurant Capacity in Response to Growing Outbreak Linked to Harper’s [ED]