Mayor Ruth Beier Sees Big Benefits and Big Risks to MSU’s Decision

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Mayor Ruth Beier in the second-floor window of her home last month. Beier has been taking the stay-at-home order very seriously.

Reacting to the news this afternoon from MSU that the university will reopen to some extent in September, East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier tells ELi she is relieved because of the local economic benefits. But she does not want to underestimate the huge challenges the City will face.

“It’s going to be scarier for the city than I think it is for campus,” she said, speaking by phone.

Beier noted that MSU President Sam Stanley and his staff have “a lot of tools to control students on their property, but in the city those students are citizens like everybody else, and we don’t have the same controls. We can’t say ‘you can’t have eight people in this room,’ and Dr. Stanley can.”

Beier says she wishes that the City of East Lansing’s leaders had been invited to be more involved in the decision-making process about reopening.

“But even if we had been involved, we probably would have come to the same conclusion,” she said, on reflection, “because if we wanted to stay closed until it is safe – which means waiting for a vaccine – I think East Lansing would never recover from that. I think every business in East Lansing would close forever, and that would be a high price to pay.”

Asked yesterday about whether City of East Lansing leaders had been included in the Reopening Campus Task Force discussions, City Manager George Lahanas said they were not.

“We are not on the committee,” Lahanas said, “but I have a standing phone call with Janet Lillie every two weeks and she provides general updates.” (Lillie is MSU’s Assistant Vice President for Community Relations.)

At City Council last night, Beier indicated she would have preferred City leaders to be actively engaged with MSU on these issues, but she said that “we have never been” included in such discussions.

“MSU has to make decisions, and we will react to whatever decisions they make,” she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens also said he would much prefer “more communication on their end.” He noted that the City “had to be very reactionary on the bar scene” when MSU ended in-person classes suddenly, something that “could have put people at risk” for infection and transmission of COVID-19.

Beier said this afternoon that she likes MSU’s idea of sending people home at Thanksgiving and not having them return for the remainder of the semester – a move that will help prevent disease-spreading travel back and forth – and she is glad that there will be online class options.

But when MSU suddenly changed to online-only instruction in March, pandemonium broke out in the City, with bars and parties packed with students unconcerned with the disease.

At the time, Stanley urged students to stop partying and to leave East Lansing to go to their family homes, but that did little to help. The only thing that stopped the packed partying scene was the governor’s stay-at-home orders.

“East Lansing doesn’t have the power to regulate things like bars” in terms of closure or occupancy limits, Beier noted today. “We can only do what the governor tells us to do, so I’m relying on the governor to protect us from the coronavirus.”

Speaking of Stanley, she said, “He is putting forty thousand people in my city, which is great for the economy, but dangerous for the people who live here” the rest of the year.

Beier said that, given that she is 59 years old – and so at increased risk of becoming very sick and dying from COVID-19 compared to young people – “I’m going to take my own protections, and I hope everyone else will, too.”

She said she will continue to stay home as much as possible.

“I don’t want anyone to think that because MSU is opening, East Lansing is safe from the virus.”

The opposite is likely to be true – that the year-round residents of East Lansing will become more at risk of catching the virus.

And that is why Beier said she is troubled that Stanley’s message seems to speak of “the MSU community” as if East Lansing is not part of that.

“I wish we had been more involved” in the task force discussions, she said, “because the community of MSU includes the community of East Lansing.”

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