Absent Obvious Solutions, Elected Officials, MSU Leaders, and Bar Owners Seek a “Unified Front”

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Alice Dreger for ELi

The scene outside Harper's on June 13, 2020.

The problem East Lansing’s government faces — having to respond to a growing COVID-19 outbreak while striking a balance between aiding ailing businesses and taking appropriate public health measures under the specter of some 40,000 college students returning — is clear.

Solutions are not. 

That became evident during hours of discussion at Tuesday night’s virtual meeting of City Council, which included four Council members, the Fire and Police Chiefs, the City Manager, the City Attorney, two local bar and restaurant owners, an Ingham County Health Officer, and MSU’s University Physician.

Local restaurateur and bar owner Tom “Dewey” Bramson (of Beggar’s Banquet, The Riv, Rick’s, and Harrison Roadhouse) and Crunchy’s owner Mike Krueger joined the meeting by invitation.

The two are active leaders within the Responsible Hospitality Council (RHC), a consortium of downtown restaurants and bars.

Bramson and Krueger made clear the RHC wants a partnership for safety, which Council welcomed. Earlier in the day, the RHC unanimously adopted a measure that to remain a member in good standing, bars and restaurants must require patrons wear masks except when specifically eating and drinking.

Not every downtown bar and restaurant is a member of the RHC, though most are – including Harper’s.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail, who spoke at length during the meeting, told Council that making people wear masks, along with the other things businesses are empowered to do under Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Orders, is the best way to deal with the issues at hand.

“We have to empower [businesses] to be able to enforce regulations already in place,” Vail said.

But at the meeting, significant confusion and disagreement surfaced about what can already be enforced. ELi reported earlier today that one attorney speaking at public comment suggested to the City Council that the City Attorney isn’t advising them of all the “tools (already) in the shed”

East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, the City’s designated emergency manager, spoke to the difficulty of keeping up with the deluge of new information. Executive orders sometimes come from Governor Whitmer’s office on a Friday afternoon and go into effect the next morning, he said.

At one point, Vail appeared to correct Talifarro on the number of people allowed to congregate together outdoors at this time.

When Harper’s became a hotspot, Vail went and had “direct words” with the owners, she said. They were allowing too many people to congregate in groups and not taking proper care to make people wear masks, stay at tables, and not bunch up inside.

Alice Dreger for ELi

The scene at Harper’s on Friday, June 19, before the cluster was identified and the bar closed.

Vail said that when she told the owners they could deny entry to anyone not wearing a mask, they said they didn’t know that.

“I can’t fault them for not knowing what’s enforceable,” Stephens said upon learning there are 139 Executive Orders.

Krueger added that “no mask, no service” has been the policy at Crunchy’s since reopening and that while there have been hiccups, generally people have complied. He said he has had to deny people at the door for not wearing masks, even some families.

Krueger also said businesses had seen a marked decline in customers since the Harper’s outbreak.

Bramson opposed the idea, raised at the meeting, of fining people without warnings for not wearing masks. He cited East Lansing’s reputation for frequent parking tickets as a similar type of deterrent for potential consumers. If there were to be a one-time warning before issuing a fine, Bramson said, he’d be more supportive. 

Bramson hammered home how eager the RHC is to work with Council and the City to manage keeping downtown open responsibly.

When the decision was made to close Albert St. for outdoor dining and drinking, he told Council, nearby businesses were not consulted or made aware by City staff, something Beier ended up apologizing for. 

The public picnic area on Albert Ave. (Gary Caldwell for ELi)

Vail suggested deploying something along the lines of the member pledge the RHC has adopted, like publishing a list of businesses that are meeting requirements or creating a sticker of approval.

Collectively, the hope is that by making masks ubiquitous downtown and presenting a unified front on the issue, with businesses and other stakeholders falling in line, mask-wearing will become an expectation and not a supposed burden.

“If we do it together and we mandate it as a group, then all these kids are going to realize when they start walking down Lexington, Stoddard, Spartan, Park . . . that they better have a mask in their pocket before they get to downtown,” Bramson said.

How to get the “kids” – what will soon be tens of thousands of MSU students – to do their part was a heavy subject on Tuesday night.

Dave Weismantel, MSU’s University Physician (essentially MSU’s public health officer), said students, faculty and staff will be required to wear a mask everywhere on campus, save for their dorm rooms or personal offices.

Students will also be signing a “health compact,” agreeing to follow rules and public health guidelines.

Classes will be restructured to significantly reduce numbers, with 70 students likely being the maximum in-person number, Weismantel told Council. 

To enforce the policy, there will be student ambassadors to ask people to wear masks. Students who don’t comply, Weismantel said, will be subject to penalties under the university’s student conduct policies.

Someone unaffiliated with the university who refused to wear a mask would be shown off campus, Weismantel said. 

MSU’s goal is for its side of Grand River Ave. to be a place where masks and social distancing are the norm. 

What students do on the other side of Grand River Ave., though, is the Council’s trouble.

Council member Jessy Gregg posited that, just as she takes off certain articles of clothing when she gets home, students will take off their masks when they come off campus.

And if bars are at a severely limited capacity and students can’t do much together on campus, Bramson said, they’ll attend private house parties where no one can enforce distancing. 

Bramson said the members of the RHC are working on ways to do virtual lines – to keep people from congregating on sidewalks – and are creating lists of best practices to ensure masks are worn and social distancing is maintained.

“The one good thing about Harper’s happening when it did is it happened when we had very few students here,” Weismantel said.

He said that if something like the Harper’s outbreak happens with 50,000 students in town, “that could make us turn the bus around.”

By that, he seemed to mean MSU’s administration might close down campus again.

Also about last night’s Council meeting: East Lansing’s Council Gives Mayor Extraordinary Emergency Powers

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