Health Officer: Confusion Surrounding Executive Orders Contributed to Harper’s Outbreak

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Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail at the July 23 "show cause" hearing for Harper's at the State Liquor Control Commission.

Confusion over complex and rapidly-changing Executive Orders from Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office contributed to the Covid-19 outbreak at Harper’s according to Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail, who has managed the superspreader problem for the area.

Now, as East Lansing residents prepare for the local population to swell with MSU students’ return, Vail is making her messages simple and clear:

“Wear a mask. Maintain social distancing at all times. Avoid large gatherings. Wash your hands frequently.”

Vail provided ELi with the epidemiological analysis of the Harper’s outbreak and has now spoken to ELi about the lessons learned from that.

Why was there confusion around the Executive Orders?

Vail praised Whitmer’s leadership during the pandemic, but explained that, in a public health emergency, the scientific understanding—and therefore public health policies—may change rapidly. And that can make the situation difficult.

“Executive orders are not easy to write,” Vail stated. They need to be specific enough to accomplish their goals but broad enough to address many concerns.

Vail referred to the Harper’s cluster as an example. When restaurants and bars were able to reopen in June, it was clear that “bars” were classified as places where alcohol accounted for 70 percent of sales and needed to make special accommodations for masks and distancing.

So why didn’t this happen with Harper’s?

Vail stated that the executive orders came out “fast and furious” leaving little time for her team—which was working remotely before restaurants reopened—to figure out the finer points and work to enforce them at bars.

Vail says that as she was working with Pat and Trisha Riley, the owners of Harper’s, on the problem of the outbreak tied to their business, she was learning the finer points of the Executive Orders with them – including requirements that all patrons remain seated and be prevented from congregating on dancefloors and at the bar.

During the growing outbreak and confusion, some business owners seemed to believe that positing a sign that encouraged mask wearing was sufficient. It wasn’t.

Alice Dreger for ELi

The scene outside Harper’s in downtown East Lansing on Friday, June 19, at about 9:30 p.m.

The Executive Order then in place included “things I was super in favor of but didn’t know,” said Vail.

She also observed that the time between an Executive Order being issued and it going into force may not present “enough time to get equipped.”

Whitmer writes her executive orders in consultation with her team that includes state level health officials, including Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. County officials, such as Vail, are not usually consulted on the contents.

Vail explained that “Locals comment after. I was sending questions through Sen. [Curtis] Hertel,” the State Senator for our area.

Vail applauded Whitmer for listening to comments and revising her Executive Orders based on concerns that had emerged.

Playing catch-up as the disease spread

Instead of penalizing businesses, Ingham County Health Department saw their interactions as providing a chance to educate business owners. Inspectors arrived at businesses with checklists—drawing upon the contents of the Executive Orders—of conditions that must be met.

In response to the Harper’s outbreak, the Ingham County Health Department also issued its own emergency order to reduce “restaurant capacity to 50 percent or no more than 75 people, whichever is less.”

Vail told ELi that she wished Ingham County had issued that order sooner. “It would have been great if we’d started with smaller numbers in some of these larger establishments so that they could get a handle on enforcement before having to deal with larger crowds.”

Advanced warning and training before the reopening Executive Order was issued would have been helpful, too, according to Vail. Vail believes that state-level training and technical assistance would have been a good start.

She also noted that it is easier to find information on Executive Orders since Whitmer combined all policies in Emergency Order 2020-160 and 2020-161. Order 2020-160 explains what businesses can open, while Order 2020-161 lays out the measures that open businesses must take.

Preparing for MSU Students

When asked if she had concerns about MSU reopening, Vail responded “of course,” but outlined some proactive steps MSU is taking before reopening, including updating the student code of conduct, acquiring masks, and setting up isolation and quarantine centers.

MSU’s campaign to encourage mask-wearing extends off campus.

It is recommended—not required—that MSU students, particularly those coming from high-risk states, self-quarantine for two weeks upon their arrival.

According to Vail, MSU is working hard to hire contact tracers and rallying the MSU Health Team to help with testing.

She applauded the City of East Lansing for issuing its emergency mask order on Friday, but she is concerned about the party atmosphere that college students tend to seek.

In a party atmosphere where drinking is involved, people let their guard down and lose inhibitions. Intoxicated people may be more likely to shout and spit as they talk. Young people may share drinks, cigarettes, and vape pens.

She advises college students to adopt the philosophy of “short term pain for long term pain.”

“I’m not going to take away the entire college experience. This is not a forever thing,” she continued, but large gatherings must be avoided.

Vail defined large gatherings as a group larger than 10 indoors. State policy permits gatherings of up to 100 people outdoors, but Vail cautions against jamming 100 people into too small an area.

“If [outdoor] space does not allow for 6 feet between individuals, you need to cut down the size of the group,” said Vail.

When asked what students and local residents can do to keep safe, Vail said her advice is the same to both groups:

“Wear a mask. Maintain social distancing at all times. Avoid large gatherings. Wash your hands frequently.”

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