Council Passes New Ordinance to Rein in Partying During Pandemic

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Aron Sousa for ELi

Sign indicating face masks required on MSU campus.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, City Council unanimously passed Emergency Ordinance 1496, which makes it a civil infraction to violate state and county public health orders, punishable with a fine of $500. 

While the new ordinance makes it a civil infraction to violate any public health order, the City mainly intends to use it to target large, outdoor parties and gatherings.

Currently, gatherings are limited to 25 people outdoors and 10 people indoors in specific, student-heavy areas of East Lansing. (See this map from ELi that defines the specific area.)

Council, ELPD Chief Kim Johnson, City Manager George Lahanas, and City Attorney Mike Homier stated that this ordinance will be enforced as soon as Thursday, after it has been made public in the Lansing State Journal. 

According to Johnson, officers will write tickets for first offenses, telling Council that “right now is not the time for warnings.” 

The ordinance is written in a way that permits the City to adapt its enforcement as public health orders change. It doesn’t reference a specific public health order but outlines that violations of any pertinent public health order is a civil infraction. 

It reads: “Any person who violates a public health order issued by the State of Michigan (including by the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services); the Ingham County Health Department or its Health Officer; or the Clinton County Health Department or its Health Officer is responsible for a municipal civil infraction under this Ordinance.”

The ordinance remains in effect until Dec. 31, 2020.

ELPD intends to ticket residents of locations where large parties have occurred. Johnson admitted that he is expecting some “blowback,” particularly since intoxicated individuals may not be the most likely to comply with an officer’s request to see an ID. In order to avoid arrests, ELPD officers may leave and “return in daylight” when the offenders are sober.

Kim Johnson, the new Chief of Police for East Lansing.

Lahanas suggested that restrictions on gathering size may change, referencing a conversation with the city manager of State College, Pennsylvania, home to Penn State University. There, outdoor gatherings have been restricted to 10 individuals. Should restrictions on gathering size change in East Lansing, violators will face the same $500 fine.

The public health orders issued by Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail on Sunday, Oct. 4 also place restrictions on bars and restaurants. 

Mayor Pro Temp Jessy Gregg said that members of the Responsible Hospitality Council were unsure how the ordinance affected them. Confusion surrounding the demands of public health orders caused problems for restaurants in June when they were allowed to reopen for in-person service and again more recently when four bars may have violated health orders.

While they were not an immediate concern, Lahanas said, he believed the infraction and fine should be on the table for establishments making “egregious” violations of the public health orders.

Police enforcement of public health orders is a marked departure from how the City has handled its ordinance requiring masks within the DDA District. Council renewed the ordinance at its last meeting, but the City still takes an “education and encouragement” approach, opting to ask residents to wear masks instead of taking punitive action. Currently, the ordinance allows for a $25 fine and a civil infraction for not wearing a mask in the DDA District. 

Council member Lisa Babcock voiced her frustration over the lack of mask wearing and related enforcement. Babcock referred to bands of “roaming Chads” — “Chad” often being slang for college-aged men — who walked unmasked downtown and were not receptive to the suggestion of wearing a mask.

Babcock called for an attempt at enforcement, questioning who was unaware that masking was necessary two months after the City initially passed the masking ordinance and many more months into the global pandemic.

“It’s like seating a jury for O.J. Simpson trial,” she said, suggesting that everyone was aware of what was going on. Babcock continued, saying, “If you are able to attend major research university, you know enough to wear a mask.”

Raymond Holt for ELi

Council member Lisa Babcock

Mayor Aaron Stephens said he understood her frustration but was reluctant to take an enforcement approach, reminding that it might ultimately mean making an arrest. He admitted that he feared for his safety several times while encouraging people to wear masks downtown. 

Stephens did not see intoxicated young people who were refusing to wear a mask as particularly inclined to cooperate with the police, which could lead to unnecessary arrests.

Council member Ron Bacon said that asking police to enforce masking would undermine what the City is asking of the police at this moment: cutting back on unnecessary interactions. Earlier in the meeting, however, Bacon stated that students not taking the pandemic seriously “is very damaging to the [MSU] brand.”

“Ultimately, people are going to take their MSU experience into the marketplace in an attempt to trade it for money, and they are damaging their brand. That’s the purpose of why you go to college – to trade your brand for someone to give you money.”

Gregg also voiced her desire for everyone to mask but believed that the new ordinance was attacking the more pressing public health threat: large parties at private residences. Similarly, Lahanas referred to a conversation he had with Vail, in which she said that passing encounters on the street were less dangerous than large gatherings.

Gregg said that the house parties led to the spike in cases and now Covid-19 is spreading in the community, resulting in non-student hospitalizations. 

As of Oct. 13 at 5:45 p.m., Ingham County Health Department reported 10 current hospitalizations for Covid-19, including one patient in the ICU.

In voting to pass the ordinance, Stephens stated that he often does not sleep, fearing for the health and safety of the community but expressed optimism that the new ordinance may help in a situation where “people’s lives are at stake.”

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