East Lansing Restaurants and Bars Prioritize Safety in Response to Harper’s Outbreak

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Gary Caldwell for ELi.

Servers wearing masks as they serve lunch at the Peanut Barrel.

Managers of East Lansing restaurants and bars tell ELi they’re doing what they can to make sure they are keeping their employees and customers as safe as possible in the wake of the Harper’s COVID-19 outbreak.

In the week and a half since Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub closed on Monday, June 22, the Ingham County Health Department has identified 107 positive COVID-19 cases linked to the East Lansing college hotspot, spreading as far as Grosse Pointes.

With staff unable to afford being sick and the survival of businesses on the line, managers in the East Lansing restaurant community are taking stricter measures.

At many, employees formally register their health information on a daily basis, and in the case of some restaurants like Crunchy’s, employees randomly have their temperatures taken.

In a June 24th post on Facebook, Crunchy’s announced that instead of requesting patrons to wear a mask upon entry, they “are now REQUIRING it, unless you have a medical condition that prevents you.”

Crunchy’s sign telling patrons to wear a mask.

While those skeptical of masks may grumble, claiming discomfort or even hypercapnia, East Lansing restaurant managers are standing firm, conscious of a responsibility to public health. They’re also aware of how important it is to their businesses to keep customers feeling safe.

“The way that we’ve been mitigating the circumstances here, is that we’re not doing karaoke, we’re not doing trivia, we’re not doing the things that cause us to have larger crowds,” said Crunchy’s owner since 2015 Mike Krueger. “Those are the types of things we’re not doing and will continue to not do until we’re safe to open up until full capacity.”

Peanut Barrel’s staff say they have been requiring masks from day one of reopening.

“I have noticed that almost all of our customers are more than willing to wear a mask,” said Meghan Bell, Peanut Barrel manager and longtime employee. “If they should so choose not to wear a mask, we also offer the option of utilizing our curb-side pickup so that they don’t have to come into the restaurant without a mask.”

Outdoor dining is considered to be a safer option for those choosing to eat out. A few restaurants like the Peanut Barrel and the Black Cat, pictured above, offer outdoor seating. (Gary Caldwell for ELi.)

By taking out various loans — such as PPP or EIDL— restaurants are able, at least for the moment, to stay open even as business fluctuates. East Lansing’s DDA has also provided help with small grants, and City Council has rolled back about $90,000 in fees normally charged to restaurants and bars. The City has also been offering free two-hour parking throughout June.

But the Harper’s outbreak seems to have had a depressive effect on many businesses.

“It kind of has cast a shadow on dining out in restaurants in East Lansing because people are nervous,” said Bell. “It’s all a work-in-progress, everybody says ‘uncharted territory.’ I don’t know what next week is going to look like. It’s definitely had an impact on business.”

“It was a weirdly slow weekend,” said Krueger of the June 26th weekend. “People are starting to really rethink the amount of time that they’re going to spend out-and-about in public. It’s likely, probably a good thing, generally speaking. It’s good to be cautious.”

“I don’t want this to sound like I blame Harper’s because they’ve been put in a very difficult position, unfortunately,” said Krueger. “The fallout from the [event], the national news coverage, whether it’s been accurate or not, it’s certainly put a stigma around East Lansing and I think that was very apparent this past week.”

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail announced tighter restrictions on Monday, now prohibiting more than 75 customers at a time in any establishment – something we have not seen previously.

“Uncharted territory” has become the new norm. With Michigan State University students, faculty, and staff planning to return to campus in August, Bell and Krueger expressed some optimism about the influx of East Lansing residents.

“It will be good to have more people back in town,” said Krueger. “I’m confident that with our policies and procedures we have in place here that we can safely house groups of up to 8 people … and serve them in a safe manner.”

Omi Sushi, another downtown restaurant that has reopened. (Gary Caldwell for ELi.)

When the fall semester begins, MSU will require staff and students to wear masks on-campus. Bell feels this move is encouraging.

“Since the Harper’s outbreak, I’ve noticed a change in a lot of people’s habits in terms of acting safer, coming prepared with their masks, wearing their masks, and being very diligent about wearing their masks through the restaurants,” said Bell. “If there’s one thing to come from that outbreak, it’s that a lot of people are now behaving a lot safer than they have been. I hope students can see that and continue to behave safer.”

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