“Thank You, Pandemic”?

Print More

Gary Caldwell for ELi

People enjoying the social space on Albert Ave. in Summer 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a major disruption in East Lansing – resulting in at least 60 deaths in the 48823 zip code, disrupting local life and the economy, eliminating some people’s livelihoods, and driving some local businesses under.

But some of the responses to the challenges presented by the pandemic have been seen as so positive or effective – or at least so promising – that efforts are underway to maintain them for years to come.

East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens talked about the “silver linings” of the pandemic on the most recent episode of ELi’s podcast, East Lansing Insider, recorded in advance of his August 11 resignation from City Council. Here’s a run-down of some of the pandemic-related changes in East Lansing that he and some others see as silver linings worth keeping:

It’s become easier for people to enjoy outdoor spaces downtown.

In 2019, ELi reported on the long-term complaint of downtown business owners regarding how much paperwork and expense they faced when they wanted to make outdoor seating available for their customers. Besides facing what they described as a fair bit of bureaucracy, businesses had to pay $50 per seat every year for offering seating in public right-of-ways, even along very wide sidewalks and in alleyways that were already closed to vehicles.

Since the pandemic, East Lansing’s City Council has pulled back on the fees and requirements, making it less expensive and easier to provide outdoor seating. Under the leadership of Community & Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins, the City has also provided far more places to sit, recline, and play outside downtown. In addition to the ongoing EL Fresco project along Albert Ave., the City also sponsored events in the colder months like the Weekend Warrior events that provided heated outdoor seating.

On the podcast, Stephens told ELi that there hasn’t been nearly as much progress as he had hoped for in terms of closed roads with expanded social spaces downtown, but that he thinks East Lansing is trending in the right direction. Anecdotally, people report seeing far more people (including non-students) enjoying downtown this summer than in summers past, not counting during festivals.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

People enjoying the Albert EL Fresco area in downtown East Lansing on a warm summer evening.

A quick reminder: the East Lansing Art Festival will take place Aug. 7-8 this year. Learn more about the festival and other downtown happenings in this ELi report from Sarah Spohn.

Dashing downtown to get take-out has also gotten easier.

For people who prefer takeout to dining downtown, the City has also made that a bit easier by designating specific City-run parking spots as pick-up spots. These pink-painted spots along Albert Avenue, Valley Court Drive, in the Bailey Street lot, and elsewhere allow you to park your car for up to 15 minutes while you run in to pick-up your take-out. Some spots can be used for restaurants that will deliver to your car door. Just look for the pink spots that have meters with bags over them.

Just a reminder about what ELi has learned from local business owners: Most third-party apps charge restaurants so much that it effectively eliminates local restaurants’ profits. You can maximize the local good your spending does by calling restaurants directly on the phone when you want to order take-out and paying the restaurant directly by card or with cash.

There has been improved communication between leaders at MSU and East Lansing, including over disciplining of off-campus students.

The start of the pandemic didn’t go well in terms of town-gown relations. In March 2020, MSU ceased in-person classes with little warning and caused a bloom of parties off campus as the City tried to limit the spread of Covid-19. During the summer months, crowds in downtown, particularly linked to people visiting Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub, were tied to 192 confirmed Covid cases, affecting counties across Michigan.

But since then, East Lansing’s City leadership say that much more cooperation has developed between them and MSU’s central administration, with Stephens and MSU President Sam Stanley working in conjunction to deal with off-campus challenges.

During the pandemic, MSU partnered with the City to develop a restorative justice program through which some students who violated public health orders engaged the East Lansing community through volunteer work and service projects.

Stephens has said there is now a real possibility of seeing the development of a more rigorous process by which MSU could discipline students for anti-social behaviors off-campus. That would include MSU disciplining not only irresponsible behaviors in terms of endangering others, but also in terms of things like party noise that disrupt the lives of neighbors.

More people have been participating in governmental meetings since they’ve gone virtual.

While the dynamic of in-person meetings has its advantages – there’s a lot one can pick-up at in-person meetings that can’t be seen on Zoom – the upsides of moving to virtual meetings have included: increased ease of participation for those who want to provide public comment; increased ease of participation for elected and appointed officials who may be traveling or stuck at home for personal reasons; and recordings that can be easily watched later.

In August, the City will return to holding most public meetings of boards and commissions in person. That will limit who can participate and who can watch. This is not just theoretical: one of the reasons named by Downtown Development Authority Vice Chair Jim Croom for his resignation this past week is that he would have to keep traveling from his second home up north to attend City meetings.

According to City Manager George Lahanas, City staff are working on figuring out how to continue to make it possible for people to at least be able to call into public comment at City Council and Planning Commission. The state’s Open Meetings Act will limit what’s possible in terms of legality, but the City seems committed to trying to use what was learned during the pandemic to increase access to public meetings, at least in some cases.

At ELi, we’ll also be continuing some features we developed in response to the pandemic.

We heard from our readers that the inability to attend memorial services for community members made it especially important to have a place, at ELi, to share remembrances of those we have lost. So, we created a space to share death notices, remembrances, and obituaries. (Find more information about that here.)

We also heard from our readers that they wanted to share “little local joys” with others during the pain of the shut-down. Those hyper-local stories were so popular, we are definitely going to continue sharing them. Remember you can always contact us with yours.

People have been telling ELi they especially love the giant “Connect Four” game downtown. (Photo by Gary Caldwell.)

Comments are closed.