After 100-plus coronavirus cases, Michigan bar owner urges more testing

More than 50 people stood in line waiting to get into Harper’s in East Lansing in March. More than 100 people who visited the brewpub in June, or had contact with patrons, have tested positive for COVID-19. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

It’s been a long week for Trish Riley as she’s watched the daily increases in cases of COVID-19 connected to Harper’s, her family’s bar in East Lansing. 

By Monday evening, the total number of cases traced to the bar had reached 107, involving residents of 13 Michigan counties. The mayor of New York now cites the outbreak as an example of why he’s delaying opening restaurant dining rooms there.

But Riley told Bridge she doesn’t want the testing to stop. It’s important, she said, to understand the scope of the infection among the young adults who rushed back to Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub when it reopened. 

“People say to me, I feel so bad for you being demonized as far as the numbers,” said Riley, who co-owns the bar with her husband, Pat. 

“I say we have to get the numbers. If we don’t have the numbers, we don’t know what’s out there.”


The fallout from Harper’s continues to resonate across public health and the state bar and restaurant industry, said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.

But he also said that, so far, the outbreak is contained to one location. “Our philosophy is, it’s not blowing up all over the state,” Ellis said. 

The biggest concern among MLBA members these days is the potential for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to close them down again, as she did in March during the first wave of state stay-at-home orders. So far, there is no indication that will happen. 

“Gov. Whitmer is continuing to monitor cases and make decisions based on the best data and science,” spokesperson Tiffany Brown said Monday. “As she has said all along, she will adjust as necessary as we learn more about where and how this virus spreads most easily.

“Bar owners and patrons must do their part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and taking all required safety precautions.”

But when patrons are college-aged and determined to party with friends, the challenges may be higher. The share of cases among young adults is growing. 

From March 1 to June 5, 16 percent of Michigan’s cases were among people 29 and younger. In the three weeks that followed, that percentage has risen to nearly 31 percent. 

Ellis and Riley said students need to absorb lessons from the outbreak as they return to campus

“We can fear numbers and we can try to hide the numbers by shutting down bars and restaurants, but these kids are going back to small apartments and they’re going to be going to house parties … and they will not be wearing face masks or social distancing,” Riley said. 

A brutal drumbeat 

Attention first focused on Harper’s on June 23, when 14 people with COVID-19 were linked to the hotspot, popular among Michigan State University students. Health officials released daily updates; by Saturday night, the total had soared to 85 cases and has just kept growing.  

Among the early customers were students from the Grosse Pointes, with at least one of the students helping to spread the virus by attending a house party in Grosse Pointe Woods where people did not wear masks or stay socially distant.  The Wayne County cases, centered in the Grosse Pointes, are now considered a second outbreak.

Of the 107 cases that Ingham County has connected to Harper’s, 95 were individuals who were at the bar. Another 12 tested positive after close contact with one of the infected patrons. The median age is just 21 — 37 are MSU students.

Trish Riley said roughly a half-dozen of those infected with COVID-19 are employees. Some others are familiar to her as customers and students who turn to the 500-seat bar for support with fundraisers and other community efforts. 

“I”m so sorry you have it,” Riley said she is telling them, recognizing that many in that age group are asymptomaticor may not consider that they could be carriers. 

“It’s important to realize that having it is a real thing now,” she tells them. “What are you going to do in the future?”

She said she wants their answers to include wearing masks, increasing social distancing and washing their hands more often. 

A plan, but it’s not enough 

The Rileys say they formed a reopening plan, based on advice from health officials, before Whitmer lifted the bar ban June 8. Bathrooms became touchless. Menus became disposable. Staff went through a full day of training in a mask so they’d get used to wearing one.

And paper masks were made available at the door for optional use by customers.

“Some people took them, but not enough,” Trish Riley says now.  

She said she and her husband can watch the bar from home through Internet cameras. By the time Harper’s reopened earlier this month, the Rileys were having 2 a.m. calls with managers, looking for trouble spots. They found plenty. 

One was a logjam in a doorway when the outside deck area closed, so they set up a new traffic pattern. Riley said she switched to disposable glasses and individually wrapped eating utensils, and realized that workers bussing tables needed additional gloves and sanitizing material. 

“Every night you’d see something that you’d want to fix,” Riley said. 

Patrons started to cluster at tables, so they bolted some to the floor. Dancing seemed to be an issue, so they “stopped a lot of the dancing … because it was harder to control,” Riley said. 

Still, virus cases started to mount, though it does not yet appear that any of the people infected have had to be hospitalized.  

That gives Riley hope, she said.

So do the 100 or so emails that she said she’s received offering support to her business. Like many restaurants in Michigan, Harper’s suffered extensive losses from the state economic shutdown, and lost staff as it reopened. About 120 people usually work there, but that’s down to about 63. Many are full-time, about half are new. 

Current workers face new safeguards. Staff will be tested twice for COVID-19. And all are told to stay home for at least 14 days as the bar undergoes deep cleaning and more changes before reopening once again.

When that will happen remains unclear. The Ingham County Health Department won’t give Harper’s approval until there’s an “inspection and we get a look at their plan,” health official Linda Vail said Monday. 

When that happens, employees will be tested every two weeks, Riley said. 

Patrons will find some changes, too. For one, they’ll all have to wear masks inside the bar, except when seated. Riley has some ideas to make it palatable. “Could wearing a mask be cool?” she asks, describing the potential to distribute branded bandanas. 

The line to get into the bar is another problem. For every person inside, still more have gathered on the sidewalk outside, hoping to get into a bar forced to operate at at half-capacity.

“I’m not sure we assumed that the line was going to be that substantial,” Riley said. “You had a lot of the student market very interested in being able to go out.”

Pat Riley is working on an online system to reserve places in line that will cut down on people gathering outside. The East Lansing City Council, meanwhile, is expected to consider a resolution Tuesday to give the mayor authority to declare a health emergency, which in turn will allow the city to enforce social distancing on sidewalks. 

Ingham County health officials are offering coronavirus testing from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday on the Michigan State University campus. They’ve also issued a county-wide executive order which, in addition to underscoring the 50 percent law, would limit bars and restaurants to no more than 75 people. 

Riley said Harper’s costs for the changes are in the tens of thousands of dollars. That, she added, is not what she’s most focused on as she works to get her bar reopened.

“I’m very interested in making sure that people are safe over people having fun,” Riley said. “It’s important we find innovative ways to still be happy with where you’re going, but be responsible.”

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middle of the mit
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:57am

The first thing that struck me in this article?

{{{The fallout from Harper’s continues to resonate across public health and the state bar and restaurant industry, said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.

But he also said that, so far, the outbreak is contained to one location. “Our philosophy is, it’s not blowing up all over the state,” Ellis said. }}}

But also the fact that they traced the people to 13 different counties. How do you know they haven't infected anyone in those counties?

This is why Mitch McConnel and others want liability protections. Because people are stupid and they are not responsible. If they were, the bars wouldn't have been open because bar owners should know their clientele.


They want to make public drunkenness cool. They even want you to be able to have martinis to go! That sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

And yet imagine the people who would WAIL, and MOAN and WHINE and CRY if anyone even suggested a place to smoke cannabis in public.

Yet you don't see them in the paper you?

And here we are, wanting to give drunk drivers drive-through service.

Remember.....these are the same people who complained that liquor stores and cannabis shops were considered essential.

And now they want you to be able to drink and drive away!

Can you believe this?

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 4:55pm

These bills do not authorize drive-through drinking - simply outdoor areas where alcohol use is legal. Lots of other states do that: Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Louisiana, etc. DUI laws are still enforced. I'm not sure what Mitch McConnell has to do with a local option ordinance on alcohol.

middle of the mit
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:19pm

I don't think I said the bills authorized those situations. I said that proponents wanted to make it so. I have no problem with someone going to a restaurant sitting outside and having a drink with dinner. I just like to point out the utter and completely insane and hypocritical double standards that are put on those who just want to smoke some cannabis outside. Talking to some people, you would think that morality had been thrown out the window and the world was about to end.

There are places where they won't allow dispensaries at all, medical or recreational, yet if you go to a "family event" you can take your kids and drink as much alcohol as you can afford and then drive the kids home. Yet getting teh weed off the streets and putting it into a business that pays taxes and/or rent and employing people is going to destroy the children and make them want to smoke the devils lettuce.

Do these other States allow you purchase a 16 oz adult beverage in a to go cup and go home? I would implore you to go the second of the links that I provided. That is an opinion piece by a representative of the hospitality industry lobby. This is what they are asking for.

Apparently you don't understand what Mitch McConnel wants to do with liability protections, and it has nothing to do with alcohol. It has to do with shielding business owners from liability from their customers or employees getting the COVID and trying to sue them.

I can understand not being responsible for your customers. That is personal responsibility. If people want to be dumb and catch a "fake virus" that they don't believe won't hurt them or the people they come in contact with, that is all on them. The employees only choice is to quit.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 11:21pm

The McConnell connection isn't hard. He's pushed for liability laws to be relaxed for businesses so they can reopen without worrying about being sued when people inevitably get sick. The standard Libertarian argument here is that if people get sick and die, the family should be able to sue an establishment that created the opportunity to get infected. Better that, they'd say, than the state requiring safety measures or requiring the businesses stay closed. McConnell wants protections for business owners, which is arguably another form of corporate welfare, but you can see the argument in the current context.

Matt Schiller
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 12:43pm

Thank you for the clarification. I agree.

Mike drop
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 12:41pm

Marc, have you seen the outbreaks in those and other states that opened too much too quickly without enforcing precautions? According to Goldman Sachs we could generation a trillion dollar in our economy if everyone wore a mask. Until a couple days ago McConnell and most Republicans scoffed at wearing masks. Even now the president cares more about his spray tan than setting an example by wearing a mask. Now I don't spray tan, but I have to wonder if that stuff rubs off and would show on his mask. His vanity is the only explanation for his poor leadership.

Lil Miss
Thu, 07/09/2020 - 3:17pm

I didn't read the linked articles, but believe I know what you're speaking of. My town is one that wants to make it legal to have carry-out drinks. The governor already made it legal, and now there are places people are looking to gather outside. You need to understand the atmosphere here. It is a very small town. A boating town. The type of place that has music in the park on weekends, and where people stroll down Main Street and browse the antique stores on weekends. The Mom & Pop diners are packed with the regulars on weekday mornings and families on Sundays after church. Main Street is full of people on Saturday night who go to the bar, then when the music starts, they head to the park.
We have car shows, farm markets, movies in the park, boat shows & races, an annual float down (that sometimes ends up in Canada) & everyone is very friendly. Our newspaper is all about the HS football team scores & the band.
So, nobody is driving thru and taking drinks on the road. They're walking down Main Street - just like they'd do if they bought a 6 pack at the corner store, but instead they're helping the local businesses stay open.
So chillax!

middle of the mit
Thu, 07/09/2020 - 7:23pm

[[[So, nobody is driving thru and taking drinks on the road. They're walking down Main Street - just like they'd do if they bought a 6 pack at the corner store, but instead they're helping the local businesses stay open.
So chillax!]]]

Public drunkenness.......And how do these people get home?
I will chillax as soon as you and the Republicans allow cannabis users to do the same.
Otherwise, why do alcoholics have special rights?


I just want parity.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 6:29am

Harper's has always been crowded and dirty, and it's no surprise that this happened so soon after they reopened. No matter what the owners claim, they clearly did the bare minimum that was required in order to open and make a quick buck. They should lose their liquor license — permanently.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 9:12am

I've been following this story since March when the news showed pictures of huge crowds outside of Harpers and folks in East Lansing reached out privately to the Rileys (Harper's owners) and asked them to do their part to mitigate spread of COVID, with no response. This article paints the Rileys to somehow be victims but in fact, they allowed the crowd to amass outside their bar and inside their bar knowing full well the disease could spread. Suggesting they don't have jurisdiction about what happens on the street outside of their bar is ludicrous. I hope Governor Whitmer closes all bars down again until we get a handle on covid. Irresponsible bar owners and patrons put all of us at risk.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 8:50am

Please don't judge all other establishments by Harper's. Harper's is very large and crowded.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 9:20am

No matter how you look at it Harpers dropped the ball,,BIG TIME,,and they are at fault,,and they need to step up and admit it!!! Sad fact they are not alone,,,BUT,,Harpers need to now lose their food and liquor license,,then maybe others will learn not to put greed above health.

I cry NO tears for Harpers owners or their lack of managment skillz. Shut them down!

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 9:26am

You can have all of the 200+ COVID 19 plans in the country, the problem is that the plan does not include a competent person at the business to oversee, ensure and adjust the plan if needed. In the case of Harper's, Ruth or Pat should not have allowed the formation of a line outside of the restaurant and a competent person would have shut the bar down. All too often a minimum wage employee is charged with making the competent persons decision and when there is a problem as with Harper's the owners shift responsibility.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 9:26am

I think we should put the blame on the people responsible; us. From all I have read, Harpers did more than required and even more than recommended. The problem is that many still look at this virus as someone else’s problem. I have no doubt that the governor would have rather kept the lid on longer but pressure from “us” to get back to business was too great. We want minimum restrictions and maximum return. We look at the states that just gave up and threw in the towel and said “we want that”. This is a representative democracy. We voted for the majority in our state government. We said through that vote that this is what we wanted. We got what we voted for. Don’t blame Harpers and the many Harpers to come, blame us for asking for everything and giving up nothing. Blame us for being selfish, for thinking we are not part of the problem.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 1:02pm

"This is a representative democracy. We voted for the majority in our state government. "

Offices that require a statewide vote are representative. State district offices are not representative, since almost all our legislative seat occupiers were gerrymandered into office, not elected into office.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 5:42pm

Yes. We have suffered through rigged GOP 'elections' for too long. And we try to change it through the only thing left: the ballot question and the GOP tries to stop even those and then turn them over with their gerrymandered, packed legislature. They want a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 12:50pm

Frustrated, I agree, but the governor has been under tremendous GOP pressure, politically and legally with serial lawsuits, to reopen. Her authority constantly questioned. She's been quite cautious without going too far. You could say she gave the greedy businesses enough rope to hang themselves so that she could show the need to slowdown or reverse course. Unfortunately, she had no other choice. Look at the notorious barber who became an enriched celebrity by disobeying her orders. He was enabled by the GOP picked judges.

Paul Jordan
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 9:45am

A few things are very clear from Ms. Riley's descriptions. Wearing masks in situations where you can't social distance (or situations of protracted distanced contact) must be MANDATORY. If Republicans have a problem with that, they need to get over it. This situation isn't forever, and the greater the degree of public--and political--compliance, the sooner we will all be beyond it.
This isn't an issue of personal freedom. Even the leaders of the Michigan House and Senate probably wouldn't describe having to wear seat belts as a limitation on their liberty. This isn't a limitation, either. It's common sense, neighborly, and necessary for now.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 3:32pm

As I understand, it IS mandatory by law. However, those who are self-centered do not care about others. They must have their "right" to infect other people. They only obey laws that they want to, as they are choosing not obeying this law. "Mandatory" is only as good as what is enforceable. Menards, COSTCO, & Trader Joes are enforcing mask wearing. Other businesses are not and we ALL suffer for this.

I feel for the employees of the business who needed to be there and got infected. I do not have any compassion for the self-centered people who choose to go to a crowded bar without a mask because they think they are young and can't be affected by this. Guess what? Younger people are showing some serious lung damage from COVID, but it is, of course, their freedom and "constitutional right" to infect themselves. However, the tragedy is that they have infected others - their family, friends and communities. They don't care, though, because having fun is way more important than guarding others' health. You gotta love the priorities of people in this state.

Look at Florida, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Georgia, N Carolina ,etc. We will be next because of stupid, selfish behavior like this.

Lisa Patrell
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:22am

The incident at Harpers is an indication of what will happen to many college communities in September across the state. What are the plans to prevent students from creating a 2nd wave in all the college towns?

Sun, 07/05/2020 - 1:20am

Lisa- I think you're being really optimistic by assuming we'll even be out of the first wave by September :(

Jay Ketover
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:55am

The majority of the fault lies with the management of the bar. No masks and no social distancing is a recipe for disaster and she did a fantastic job of causing it.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 11:22am

Trish Riley is a real class act. Instead of being defensive, questioning the testing or denying the contact tracing conclusions, she's focused entirely on the health of her patrons and how she and her staff can learn from this. The governor's office would do well to hold her up as a wonderful example of how we will all make mistakes but best, how to learn to deal with this virus in the long term. All the nonsense and mixed messages from Washington creates dangerous uncertainty and confusion; Ms. Riley's and Harpers' experience is clear, usable, credible and real. Thank you Ms. Riley!

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 12:35pm

But he also said that, so far, the outbreak is contained to one location. “Our philosophy is, it’s not blowing up all over the state,” Ellis said. That's a heck of a philosophy; pretend the potential for community spread is not there because it hasn't happened yet. SMH! Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing isn't about politics. It is an IQ test. Don't fail it.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 1:08pm

This problem doesn't get solved until Republicans get on board with what it takes to mitigate the virus spread.

If our Republican state legislature passed a bill requiring indoor face covering in public places and specified a significant penalty for violation of the mandate, we'd be on our way to successfully dealing with virus spread.

I've no doubt that our governor would sign this bill.

Wed, 07/01/2020 - 10:09am

EB,,U mean more threats of fines and putting people in steel cages for not wearing a mask....??,,MANDATE yes,,threats against my freedom or finances,,,NO!! BTW,,I am smart enough to wear a mask all the time and let those that do not how foolish that action is.

Trent Vesterson
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 1:35pm

Anyone that believes that Harper's and its owners did all that they could should take a look at this video from inside Harper's the night they reopened:

Absolutely no social distancing or masks in sight, including on staff (e.g., the DJ). They failed miserably and as a result other businesses are suffering.

Laura Brendan
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 2:28pm

The Riley family’s redirection of fault is infuriating. The chance to disregard all of the safety precautions that should be taken at this time was offered up to customers on a silver platter. Surely there is responsibility that must be taken for their part in this catastrophe.

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 8:29pm

What this bar has done is criminal. They absolutely should not be allowed to reopen their doors. We have all seen the videos of the inside of the bar. We have all seen the pictures of the line out their door. It is every businesses responsibility to protect their patrons and the public. They have brought every single restaurant in Lansing down with them. Shame on you! If you couldn’t control the crowds then the police should have been called in. You had no business allowing people on a dance floor during a global pandemic. You had no business allowing people to mill about without face masks. If they won’t wear them then kick them out. We all want to make money, we all want to get back to business as usual. Thanks to you we have been set back AGAIN by weeks. I’m in shock that your liquor license is not being taken away.

Thomas D. Biggs
Tue, 06/30/2020 - 10:38pm

This is a great article. As one who lives in Ypsilanti I am quite concerned about college age students not complying. Starting in early September, we will have 50,000 students at EMU and U of M being added to our mix, most of whom have not been here since the first stay at home orders in March. I am very concerned about the impact this will have on the safety of our community.

Jack Matthias
Wed, 07/01/2020 - 11:14am

Hope someone is tracking how many of these students and staff become ill and if so to what degree and if any end up hospitalized and if there are any fatalities among those that are actually there. Would be useful to do the same with anyone they then spread the infection to.
Sounds like for every case we know about - there are perhaps 10 more with no symptons or minor symptoms.
There is also some data that says for everyone who developes antibodies that can be measured - there will be 4 others who had the exposure and they were not infected because their immune systems were strong enough and they don't even develop antibodies that can be detected.
If both are true - then a significant portion of our population has already been exposed and is at greatly reduced risk. Maybe we are approaching herd immunity faster than we can measure.
We obviously need to protect those at high risk. But perhaps having it spread as it did at Harper's among students at low risk of a severe illness is not all negative. That is why it would be useful to track those cases.

Thu, 07/02/2020 - 12:00pm

The bigger issue to me is, while more tested positive, are they really sick, or just some symptoms or are there hospitalizations or deaths associated with cases? Because if not, and they are mild cases, then this adds to the herd immunity, and that is not a bad thing. Also, Gov. Whitmer shut down bars again down here, but not in Traverse City where SHE will be on the holiday weekend. Coincidence? Because no one from here goes Up North for a holiday weekend...