“We’ve never been through a pandemic before,” Patrick Riley, co-owner of Harper’s Restaurant & Brew Pub in East Lansing, told members of Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission at today’s “show cause” hearing.
Owners Patrick and Trisha Riley and their attorneys, Kelly Allen and Cameron Evans, showed up together in masks live from Harper’s for the virtual meeting, taking them off a few minutes in.
The four maintained throughout the hearing that Harper’s did what it could with the information the owners said they had available to them on June 8, the date of reopening. Only in hindsight, they said, can they see where they took missteps.
But Assistant Attorney General Jason Geissler began the hearing by contextualizing the outbreak.
He detailed the various executive orders released by Governor Whitmer’s office between March and July 2020. He presented photos and videos taken in June at Harper’s, showing unmasked patrons crowding on lines and on the dance floor, indicating this was not in keeping with the orders in place at the time.
The Rileys told the commissioners they were not aware they could refuse entry to anyone not wearing a mask. Only when Ingham County Health Department official Linda Vail mentioned it to them, they said, did they realize they had this authority.
The owners told the commission they adapted to the business’s hectic first night of reopening by bolting down tables to try to stop patrons from congregating together. But they did not seem to understand the main social-distancing rules in place at the time for restaurant and bar patrons.
Three commissioners were present for the meeting: Pat Gagliardi (who serves as the Chair), Dennis Olshove, and Geralyn Lasher. Commissioner Lasher openly expressed skepticism that the Harper’s owners had been appropriately responsive to the problems.
“The pictures inside, what I saw on social media, what we saw here this afternoon, we did not see people social distancing,” said Lasher. “How were you managing crowd control given this was your experience on June 8th?”
Patrick Riley responded that Harper’s added large heavy tables on the dance floors to dissuade patrons from using that space.
“We looked at the best practices. There was nothing in the CDC, nothing in the LARA, [or] MLBA guidelines. Nothing told us about common areas or people mingling or people dancing. In hindsight, I wish we had stopped people from moving together anywhere.”
But Lasher responded by noting that in the governor’s executive order in effect when the business reopened, restaurants were instructed to avoid letting people congregate in areas and to “post signs instructing customers to wear face coverings until they get to their table.”
She continued, “So, that is not a new development in the most recent executive order. That was in place on June 8th for reopening.”
Harper’s attorney Cameron Evans responded that Executive Order 114 did not say that customers were required to wear a face covering – just that signs be up advising it. Employees were required to wear a face covering.
Signage was up and employees were wearing masks, Evans told the commissioners, so both requirements of the order were met.
“I believe [the order] also means carrying that out,” responded Lasher, “but we’ll leave that to your legal interpretation, Mr. Evans.”
Later in the meeting, Ingham County’s health official Linda Vail countered Pat Riley’s statement that there were conflicting scientific consensus about mask wearing in early June, telling him that “ever since early April, [the CDC and others] have been on message” about wearing masks.
While orders in early June may not have been explicitly clear about requiring masks of patrons, Vail said, the rest was just common sense in fulfilling what the orders intended.
On this, Vail and Lasher appeared to align. They are the two people who are now charged with making sure Harper’s is ready with appropriate precautions and practices before they reopen.
Questions raised about underage drinking
Faced with mounting public scrutiny now centered on an online petition alleging a history of unsanitary conditions, harassment, and discrimination, the participants of today’s hearing largely stuck to the subject of last month’s COVID-19 outbreak and what the owners of Harper’s intend to change operationally to re-open safely.
Nevertheless, what seemed to concern some commission members was that several of the primary COVID-19 cases linked from Harper’s were of individuals under the age of 21.
In response to this line of questioning, Pat Riley pointed out that, as a restaurant, the business can serve food and nonalcoholic drinks to people under the drinking age.
He also told the commissioners, “We check IDs rigorously,” indicating, “I can tell you we have turned over literally thousands of [fake] IDs to the East Lansing Police Department… We’re very, very, very strict about allowing people into our facility.”
An officer from ELPD, Jeff Spitz, was present for the meeting and confirmed that Riley had turned in over a thousand fake IDs from the establishment. Detective Spitz noted that underage drinkers buy such IDs in bulk online and that they are often hard to spot as fake.
Spitz also told the Commission that City Attorney Tom Yeadon had told the police that he wasn’t sure they could enforce social distancing rules on the street. So the police did not act in response to the crowded, mask-less lines.
Yeadon’s contract was recently terminated by a majority of City Council.
With what is now 186 confirmed cases tied to Harper’s – including 144 primary cases (people at Harper’s) and 44 secondary (people assumed to have caught the disease from someone who had been at Harper’s) – the outbreak shifted COVID-19 infection demographics in Ingham County.
According to Vail, 31% of Ingham County coronavirus cases are now in the 20-29-year-old age group.
Pat Riley repeatedly told the commissioners that he is a member of the MSU committee working on the reopening of campus and that he’s the President of the Responsible Hospitality Council (RHC) of East Lansing, an industry group of downtown bars and restaurants. He said that many other downtown businesses have been similarly hit with infected employees and were closed as a result.
Changes in practices planned
The Rileys and their attorneys seemed to understand the seriousness of the outbreak, but also seemed to offset the blame, calling it a “learning curve” and suggesting this is something all businesses are experiencing.
Operationally, the owners of Harper’s intend to change practices before reopening. To remedy the crowded lines outside, Harper’s will insist late-night patrons use a virtual waiting platform on their phones. Without an online check-in, bouncers will refuse entry.
The virtual line app will require people’s personal information (name and cell phone number) to make contract tracing easier. Pat Riley touted this as an industry-leading practice not seen in other Michigan establishments.
Inside the brewpub, Pat Riley told the commissioners, patrons will have to remain seated at their own tables unless going to the bathroom or exiting.
Loud music will be eliminated so that people won’t be shouting. Standing or sitting at the bars and dancing will be prohibited.
Harper’s will also ban e-cigarettes and vapes from the premises to reduce COVID-19 exposure risks from sharing of those devices.
For now, Vail has requested a detailed plan from the Rileys. The Ingham County Health Department will review the plan and do an in-person inspection prior to approval, with Lasher co-monitoring the reopening plans.
Harper’s also intends to do a soft launch, opening only their patio until they feel their employees are ready for larger crowds.
Pat Riley concluded his comments at the meeting with a statement that said, “COVID-19 is a silent invisible thief who enters your business while you’re looking and takes it and your reputation with it.”
He warned other businesses they could suffer what his has because of the disease.