Fallout from Harper’s Covid Cluster Continues

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Harper's Brewpub in downtown East Lansing.

For a few hours on Saturday, thanks to Harper’s Brewpub, East Lansing was featured in CNN’s top story.

“Coronavirus Cases Linked to Michigan Bar Grow,” read the headline. The story began with the misleading claim that “East Lansing residents have been asked to self-quarantine after roughly 85 people contracted Covid-19 at a bar this month.”

Within a few hours, enough outcry had arisen – including from the Ingham County Health Department – that CNN changed the material to better reflect reality: patrons of the bar have been asked to self-quarantine, not the whole town. CNN pushed something else to the top story.

From the Ingham County Health Department’s Twitter feed.

But this image of East Lansing as a college town with a serious problem had already made its way around the national news cycle. It didn’t help that an outbreak in Grosse Pointes has been traced back to the Harper’s cluster.

Several older East Lansing residents have told us that the situation related to Harper’s, with 85 cases already confirmed, means they don’t feel safe patronizing businesses, particularly in the downtown. They won’t even come to the farmers’ market.

Two hair salons just around the corner from Harper’s have put up signs in their windows telling patrons that if they’ve been to Harper’s, they’re not welcome.

Blade’s Hair Studio has posted this: “If you have been to HARPER’S BAR or any bar without practicing any SAFETY MEASURES, please do not enter. Thank you.”

Sign in the window of Blades Hair Studio on M.A.C. Ave.

Nearby, Great Clips has a similar sign: “If you have visited Harper’s between June 12th – 20th, we kindly ask you to not enter at least 14 days since your last visit there. Thank you and sorry for the inconvenience!”

ELi reported on Saturday that graduate teaching assistants are looking at the Harper’s outbreak, thinking it’s a bad idea to reopen campus.

And a number of bars and restaurants near Harper’s have mysteriously closed. This doesn’t seem to be because their own employees have tested positive – a situation that would require immediate closing and deep-cleaning under the governor’s executive orders.

Linda Vail, Health Officer for Ingham County, told ELi late today, “After checking with staff we know of no other [East Lansing] bars/restaurants that had one or more employees test positive, at this time. As you know, this situation changes rapidly. We are doing our best to contain.”

It appears that some bars and restaurants near Harper’s are closing voluntarily, as a preemptive measure.

Scott Rolen of Lou & Harry’s (near Target on Grand River Avenue) told ELi this evening by email, “With the outbreak that was happening in downtown [East Lansing], we met with our staff and decided it would be best to close down for 10 days or so (until after the 4th of July weekend) to hopefully help stop the spread from getting even worse. We felt we had no other option, everything that has happened recently downtown has made everyone nervous to come to work and seemingly not wanting come out to the downtown.”

Rolen explains, “We were doing a lot to be safe during our operation. All staff had to wear masks, customers outside coming in had to wear masks, no live music to try and stop any type of dancing or group [congregating], and we were only allowing 50 people in at a time. We also made the entire staff get tested the week before we temporarily closed down to the public.”

“Additionally,” Rolen wrote, “we closed down certain tables to spread the seating out and only allowed 8 people on our patio at a time. We built portable partitions for the line, every 6 feet would be a plexiglass wall to help separate the groups in line waiting to enter. We were very excited to be open again, but felt it was irresponsible to not try and help slow this spread by any means at this point.”

The sign up at Lou & Harry’s, around the block from Harper’s.

Said Rolen, “as owners and operators of the restaurants, we really have to rethink our entire operation for now. We can’t continue to operate even sort of like we did before until this is more under control. We are just very thankful for the loyalty we have experienced throughout this bumpy ride and hope everyone continues to stick by us!”

For now, Lou & Harry’s is only doing take-out. That will substantially cut into their profits.

Trish Riley, co-owner of Harper’s, told ELi by phone this evening, “Obviously no one wants to have an outbreak of Covid.” She said her team has worked with the Health Department to deal with the problem. For now, the restaurant remains closed.

Riley says that as soon as she found out one employee had a sore throat, she suggested all employees be tested. She isn’t sure when Harper’s will reopen, but it will be after a new air-handling system is installed. They’re also working on a way to manage the line.

Alice Dreger for ELi

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

Asked what she thinks about people feeling unsafe to go downtown now, Riley said, “That’s really unfortunate,” especially because “I don’t know if you can determine that every case from being at Harper’s.” (The Health Department can’t. Contract-tracing can only determine likely sources.)

She said that in the future, all patrons will be required to wear masks. They’re asking the Health Department if Harper’s-branded bandanas would be safe – these are something patrons have indicated in surveys that they would be willing to wear. If those aren’t safe, she says, they’ll require masks now.

Riley said her group is “working diligently to do anything we can think of.” She wanted people to know she cares very much about the health and wellbeing of people in the community.

In our interview tonight, she did not blame the City of East Lansing for the problems on the line, as the Rileys did just after they shut down.

ELi reported that in May, the City Council ceded to the Rileys’ request that the special permitting fees they were paying to the City of East Lansing be waived during the pandemic.

Harper’s paid more than any other establishment – about $19,000 a year – because it has a higher occupancy than any other liquor-serving establishment in East Lansing by about three-fold.

At Crunchy’s, a few blocks away, a sign that said “Please wear a mask” now has the word “Please” crossed out.

Update, June 29, 10:30 am: Leroy’s Classic Bar in Lansing has seen a case of coronavirus in an employee who has worked both there and at Harper’s. Frustrated with the bad press the Harper’s story is bringing to their business, their attorney has issued a press release.

It begins, “The owners of LEROY’S Classic Bar and Grill in Lansing are frustrated with reports linking the restaurant’s closure over the weekend to that of an East Lansing campus bar.” Read the whole thing here.

Note: When originally published, this article referred to the Great Clips window sign as “slightly less aggressive sign” than the one at Blades Hair Studio. We changed this to “a similar sign” in response to an email from Blades’ owner Timothy Monet, who wrote, “I don’t think you have the right to call my sign aggressive when people are dying from this virus. I need to keep my clients as safe as possible. There are too many people out there who don’t understand how serious this is and by doing their part to social distance and wearing a mask, maybe we can help contain the spread of this highly transmissible virus.”

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