County Health Officials Now Identify 14 Coronavirus Cases Tied to Harper’s

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Alice Dreger for ELi

The line outside Harper's on Friday, June 19, 2020. The owners have opted to close to try to eliminate the line with new technology.

UPDATE: The Ingham County Health Department announced at 11:30 a.m. that “At least 14 people who recently visited Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub June 12-20 have tested positive” for COVID-19. The announcement indicates that “Harper’s opted to close temporarily late Monday to implement a program to eliminate lines and to modify its HVAC system.”

The announcement says all the cases involve people aged 19-23. About half are connected to MSU. “The increase in Ingham County COVID-19 cases reported for June 22 was the largest the county has seen since May 27.”

In the press release, MSU President Sam Stanley is quoted as saying his thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by the virus.

Original story follows:

Early yesterday, ELi received a report of a young woman who has tested positive for COVID-19 and who was likely to have had the disease when she was in Harper’s a week ago Sunday.

About 12 hours later, the owners of Harper’s called us to say they are temporarily closing their downtown East Lansing establishment.

The problem, Pat and Trish Riley said in a statement released late Monday night, is the line outside: “Because we have no authority to control lines on public property, we are left with the dilemma of staying open and letting this situation continue, or closing until we can devise a strategy that eliminates the lines altogether.”

They have elected to do the latter.

Before it got to this point, the Rileys had tried putting up a big banner to ask people on line to wear masks. They had put a series of social-distancing stickers on the sidewalk. 

They told ELi last night that they have had a medical doctor working with them, and that they’ve been encouraging their employees and customers to be frequently tested. Trish Riley says she is a certified naturopath and believes strongly in the importance of regular testing to keep everyone safe.

But, as they note, the sidewalk is public space, not their property, and they can’t legally force particular behaviors in a public space.

The Rileys tell ELi that one of the problems with the line has been that people are openly drinking on it, and they note that this is because the City of East Lansing elected to create an outdoor dining-and-drinking space that includes the sidewalks that stretch from Harper’s to past HopCat.

If the City Council hadn’t followed staff’s recommendation on June 9 to open this public outdoor drinking space to support downtown restaurants, it would still be illegal to have open containers of alcohol outside of restaurant space, including in the area of the line to get into Harper’s.

Last Tuesday, City Manager George Lahanas told Council that he wants to change the closing time of the public dining/drinking space from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. to create fewer problems with the line at Harper’s. Tonight, Council will consider that legal change, following a public hearing during the virtual meeting that starts at 7 p.m.

The line has certainly posed a significant spectacle in a tense time of the pandemic – and it has been the subject of much ire on social media. On several nights over the last week, we found the line densely packed and almost entirely unmasked.

View of the line and eastern deck from the parking garage across the street, June 19, 2020.

While these lines persisted, City Manager George Lahanas and Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez could be seen one night chatting together in the 7-Eleven parking lot. Neither they nor uniformed police officers present were doing anything about the risky behaviors just a few feet away from them.

But it isn’t just the line at Harper’s that is of concern to those worried about disease transmission. From the street, it’s been clear that many young people on the decks have not been wearing masks or practicing social distancing. Patrons who have been inside tell us the same risky behavior has pervaded the interior spaces as well, and some have taken photos and video of it.

When asked about possible cases of COVID tied to people who have been patronizing Harper’s and whether the Ingham County Health Department had been in touch, Pat Riley said his understanding was that he is prohibited by law from discussing possible COVID-19 cases at their establishment.

By contrast, last week the Lansing State Journal reported that the Lansing Brewing Company opted to be quite public about a case of COVID-19 tied to their location, as they announced they would close for special cleaning to keep the public safe.

Monday night, the sign on the door said the business would reopen on Wednesday. But the Rileys say it’s not clear when Harper’s will reopen.

The Rileys say they have been taking various measures to try to reduce risk, including bolting down tables to stop patrons from pushing tables together to form larger groups. They have also handed out masks and polled customers on what it would take to get more of them to wear masks.

Pat Riley said they did not close the business sooner in part because their employees suffer significantly when the business is closed.

He noted that one reason the line is long is because occupancy at Harper’s – like all Michigan restaurants and bars – is currently limited to 50 percent of normal capacity.

Pat Riley said he has been talking to vice presidents at MSU about how to handle the public health risks when tens of thousands more students come back in late August.

He noted that if demand is as usual but bars are limited to 50 percent capacity, the lines outside will necessarily be much longer than usual.

Many of the other student-centric bars are not currently open. Data from the City shows that Harper’s has by far the largest capacity of any alcohol-serving establishment in the City limits; in normal times, it can legally hold 950 people. The next largest is Rick’s, at 353.

That data from the City also shows that the total ordinary occupancy for alcohol-serving establishments in East Lansing comes to only 6,429. East Lansing has a population of about 50,000, and on big game days the number of people in the City can swell to 100,000 or more.

The fact that there are only about 6,400 public spots to sit and have a drink in the city points to the fact that much of the drinking and partying that happens in East Lansing happens on private premises – including at fraternities and other big houses.

And those spaces are not subject to the governor’s executive orders, and not easily subject to regulation by MSU.

The Rileys say they will keep their business closed until they can solve the problem of the line with technology and also complete a modification of their HVAC system to provide advanced air purification.

It’s not an easy time for businesses to be investing in new technologies.

“But we believe,” the Rileys say in their statement, “for the safety of all, it is the right thing to do.”

Disclosure: ELi receives funding ($1,200/year) from the Responsible Hospitality Council, which Pat Riley currently chairs. Correction: When originally posted at 1 a.m., this article misidentified Michigan Brewing Company as the bar that has gone public about a person with a case of coronavirus having been in their establishment. This has been corrected to Lansing Brewing Company.

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