Michigan bars worry as East Lansing bar’s coronavirus tally tops 70 cases

More than 50 people stood in line waiting to get into Harper’s in East Lansing in late March, despite officials' warnings. Fourteen men and women who visited the brewpub in June have been confirmed to have the coronavirus. (Bridge file photo by Riley Beggin)

Not everyone had fun at Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub in East Lansing when the popular bar near Michigan State University reopened this month.

One customer complained on June 18 to the Ingham County Health Department. “Bar patron reported no one wearing a mask and little social distancing,” said Linda Vail, county health officer, reading from her files. 

That’s the same day that Vail learned her staff had identified a couple of positive coronavirus cases from people who’d been at the bar.


Those initial cases grew into an outbreak as the bar closed to patrons. By Friday afternoon, the count of people affected was up to 63. At 7 p.m., the total had grown in 76. 

Health officials say they are not likely finished with identifying people who were infected with COVID-19 after visiting the bar between June 12-20. Seventeen of the cases are asymptomatic, and testing continues. None have been hospitalized.

“It’s hard to tell where you are in a curve when you’re in the middle of it,” Vail said. “But I certainly expect more cases. 

“You don’t expect to identify 10-15 new cases in a day and have it just end.”

The situation at Harper’s comes as Michigan coronavirus case count increases, with an uptick among people under 30 since June 5. From March 1 to June 5, about 16 percent of Michigan’s cases were among people ages 0 to 29.  But from June 5 through June 26, cases in that age group increased to almost 31 percent. 

Overall, Michigan has had 62,695 coronaviruses cases and 5,885 deaths, as of Friday.  The seven-day average was at 267, the highest the average has been since June 5. 

The outbreak in East Lansing raises questions about how the virus will be controlled near college campuses as universities plan to reopen this fall.

At the same time, at least two states — Florida and Texas — announced Friday they are closing bars amid sharp increases in COVID-19 cases. That news strikes fear into struggling bars and restaurants in Michigan, where they’d been ordered to close from mid-March until June 8.  

“We’ve been crippled,” said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. “Now I’m afraid these things that happened at Harper’s and elsewhere will add to that.”

Pat and Trisha Riley, owners of Harper’s, were not available for an interview with Bridge. They issued a statement this week, along with a list of improvements they’re planning at the bar. 

“Our small family business takes its role and responsibility in our community very seriously – especially when it comes to the health and safety of our customers and team members,” they said. 

Ellis, of the beverage association, represents about 8,500 establishments in the state that serve alcohol. About 30 percent said when surveyed that they may not survive the coronavirus shutdown that started in March. By June 8, bars and restaurants were allowed to open at 50 percent capacity.

“We’re not built to survive at 50 percent,” said Ellis. 

Reopening generated a wave of business, he said, but now many bars and restaurants report that traffic is slowing. As a result, he said, many are vigilant about adhering to social distancing to maintain business and prevent having to close temporarily if a staff member falls ill.

However, one common problem, he said, is customers who refuse to wear masks.

“Patrons do what they want to do,” Ellis said. Within a week of opening, members reported that rudeness to the staff was their top concern.

“They’re not there to battle people who say, ‘I don’t want to wear a mask,’” Ellis said of bar and restaurant workers. “It’s just very tough for the owners.”

Vail, the county health officer, said there’s a solution for bars: Deny entry to anyone not wearing a mask.

Local health departments already license bars and restaurants. Vail said they also have the authority to add social distancing requirements found in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders to their licensing standards. 

Now, Vail said, restaurant inspections will also look for six-feet of distance between tables and masks on staff as part of routine enforcement.  Her staff is starting that now, and it could result in escalating actions, like hearings and educational sessions, all of which involve costs. The ultimate action could be to close a facility.

In the meantime, she’s trying to encourage compliance. Watching the case count climb at Harper’s immediately after its opening signals that everyone in bars and restaurants will benefit from the increased protection coming from masks, she said.

That’s not a question at nearby campus favorites like Crunchy's and the Peanut Barrel, according to those businesses. Both are posting signs and emphasizing that patrons must join staff in wearing masks.

“The last thing we want is to get shut down again because someone who works for us or a customer is exposed,” said Meghan Bell, manager at the Peanut Barrel. The restaurant is providing masks to customers, and staff outlines the policy while seating patrons.

So far, the Peanut Barrel has handed out at least 1,000 masks, Bell said. Most people agree to wear it, though some grumble. 

“It’s gotten better since everything happened at Harper’s,” she said. 

Vail said health officials across the state can look to East Lansing for a glimpse into coronavirus spikes that could happen this fall in college towns.

The worry, she said, is that “we’ll have student-aged folks gathering at favorite hangouts and off we go.”

East Lansing officials are bracing to deal with it. Mayor Ruth Beier said she asked the owners of Harper’s not to open when they talked ahead of the June 12 opening.

“They called me, and wanted to assure me it would be safe,” Beier said. They talked about the tables being bolted to floors and a new air-handling system to reduce the risk of infection.

But Beier said she looked inside the bar during the first week it opened and saw maskless patrons dancing and little social distancing. She said there was no notice on the door that anyone needed a mask to enter.

“In a lot of places this is working,” Beier said of other bars and restaurants in the area that have less than Harper’s estimated 500-person capacity. “Bars like Harper’s, I don’t know how they can open safely.

“I don't necessarily blame the owners of Harper’s,” she continued. “It’s their whole setup. It might be impossible to keep it safe.”

In an email to Bridge, the Rileys said they had taken every measure to meet guidelines, and their next steps are to go “above and beyond” to earn the trust of the community. 

There is no date yet for reopening, the Rileys said. Opening “won’t be until after we can assure even more enhanced precautions have been taken,” they said. That will include testing all employees, vendors and suppliers.

“(We) are working tirelessly to do all the right things,” they said.

Among the improvements planned by Harper’s is a virtual line management system to control the patrons waiting to enter the bar while standing on city sidewalks, which “we have no control or authority over,” the Rileys said. 

That may change next week. East Lansing City Council will vote on Tuesday on a proposal to allow Beier to declare a health emergency, which in turn will allow the city to enforce social distancing on sidewalks. 

Meanwhile, East Lansing and many other cities are trying to make it easier for bars and restaurants to rebuild lost sales, in part by closing off streets so that outdoor dining capacity can be increased.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also is expected to sign legislation next week expanding sales options for bars and restaurants, including the ability to sell alcohol to go and deliver it to customers.

That legislation was offering hope to many bars and restaurants, Ellis said. Optimism has been tempered by the outbreak.

Now, they look to East Lansing’s outbreak as a sign that they face still more vulnerabilities when it comes to reopening. They now fear being closed again if the virus can’t be managed in group settings, and they want customers to know they consider masks their lifeline, not a political statement.

Another closure could be devastating, said Ellis.

“We’re still fearful that is going to happen,” he said. “We knew as restaurant owners that people are going to come into our place that have COVID. That’s why we’re prepared as best we can with sanitization, the cleaning, everything.

“We just need the public to help us out.”

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Sat, 06/27/2020 - 12:13am

We should go back to being cautious and let Florida be the butt of all US jokes.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 8:40am

It is up to the restaurants, bars, churches, to ENFORCE the rules, and up to the people to follow them,,or else health dept. must have power to shut places down. As I see it now, many places and many people are failing badly!

It takes a village
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 12:25pm

That's easier said than done. Look at what businesses are facing:
An irate customer/patron may already be infected when carrying on like this and it is dangerous for establishments to deal with these people. It seems obvious that many of these protesters are mentally unstable. They lie about health reasons for refusing to wear masks and they think they have a right to ignore store rules. I agree that businesses should be sanctioned for not enforcing rules because other patrons might be unjustly exposed thinking that the rules will be enforced. But we have to punish the violators with criminal trespass if they refuse to comply.

Sherry A Wells
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 8:48am

So COVID might succeed where Carry Nation failed?

Mon, 06/29/2020 - 1:01pm

How so? You can drink and smoke til your heart's content. Are you for real?

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 9:48am

No one hospitalized. They probably were more likely to die in a car accident that night than they are of dying of covid. This cohort has at LEAST a 99.95% chance of surviving.

The lockdown wasn't going to miraculously make the virus go away. It was meant to flatten the curve. And it did. We need to focus on covid hospitalizations. And don't mistake them for people coming in for a tumor removal who test positive and then get added to the numbers.

Bridge, do we know if Michigan is including such numbers in their hospitalization counts? Like Texas is? https://justthenews.com/politics-policy/coronavirus/texas-government-cou...

Ed of GB
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 12:53pm

Amen, as of 6/28/20 none of the infected have been hospitalized for treatment and nearly a third have no symptoms. Let's act like adults and keep moving on. Protect the vulnerable and let the others enjoy life!

Enjoy future
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 8:38pm

So you support contact tracing? That's a step in the right direction. Still a little early to tell, but worse, how many others have they unknowingly infected?

Mom, daughter, ...
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 2:30pm

How do you know? How many of those 85 people infected other people at higher risk? So now the goal is to perk up the curve and burden hospitals again or is it to reopen the economy without that?

BTW About 38,000 people die in car crashes in the US every year. Right now, in less than half a year, almost 128,244 have died in the US from COVID19. So you really need to think about what you post.

George Hagenauer
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 10:06am

It might be useful in coverage of the daily count to add comments about major outbreaks. We see a spike and people across the state worry about going to the store when a large portion of the spike is 100 cases in a rural migrant camp or 65 cases in a college bar in East Lansing. This could be done by a quick check on county increases and a call to the county public health and would be a real benefit to the readers. We live in a hot spot and many people are really concerned about the virus as it is not hard to hear about people who died even if you know non one who has had it. But cases here have dropped down to almost nothing but a lot of people especially older ones freak out when cases increase within the state. Emphasizing where they are increasing might be a useful tool for all of us.

No way
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 2:31pm

Just plan for online school in the fall. Why should we pretend schools can open with in-person classes?????

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 10:31am

“Patrons do what they want to do,” Ellis said. Within a week of opening, members reported that rudeness to the staff was their top concern.

“They’re not there to battle people who say, ‘I don’t want to wear a mask,’” Ellis said of bar and restaurant workers. “It’s just very tough for the owners.”
Well, the rude patrons at Harper’s have just had an appropriate consequence: when you don’t follow the rules at the bar, you don’t get to go to the bar at all. And I disagree with Harper’s management who said they couldn’t control what the crowds did while waiting on the sidewalk. All righty, they can’t control the sidewalk, but they can control who gets to come in the door.
One of the pluses about bars vs. restaurants and other businesses is that bars have bouncers, so make use of them. Word gets around as to which places make you follow the rules and which ones don’t. For example: Once, when I was subbing in the classroom of a colleague in a junior high school, the kids were going wild when I entered the room, yelling, literally throwing scissors, etc. After sorting out the mess and restoring order, I asked a kid, “Why are you doing this stuff in Ms Smith’s room? You never act like that in my class!”
The answer: “Because you don’t let us.”
Hmmmm..... maybe Harper‘s needs to hire some junior high teachers to moonlight for them....

Enough selfishness
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 2:36pm

Walmart doesn't enforce the rules for customers or employees. They say they can't because the laws have no penalties and the police won't enforce them, but I agree with you. Ban them for life, if they don't follow the rules; do not trespass. That will teach them! Oh and post their tantrums online for their employers/customers/family/friends/therapists to see.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 10:45am

Gyms are still closed, but thanks to our great governor, all of the pandemic spreading essential bars are open. Genius.

Too fast
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 2:38pm

I agree. Close them all.

Robyn A Tonkin
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 10:48am

I think the mayor of East Lansing finally said what we have all been thinking in reference to wining and dining away from home: "It might be impossible to keep it safe." Will this change when there are anti-viral medications and a vaccine? That all remains to be seen.

Bob Dunn
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 12:25am

In walking into a packed bar to pick up my order the sign at the door stated " You must wear a mask and keep social distance". I was the only one following rules. If we have rules they must be enforced. The owners must enforce them or be closed. Once several bars/restaurants are closed owners will follow suit. People will follow once they know bars are going to be forced to follow the rules. If they don't all the establishments could and need to be closed.

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 2:39pm

That didn't work for Trump's Michigan barber. He became a rich celebrity.

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 4:04am

Wearing masks is dumb. Trump does not so why should we. As long as I aint sick Im gonna go out and enjoy the summer before school starts. That means partying hard babe, woo!

Arthur Thrash
Sun, 06/28/2020 - 5:54am

Does anyone ever think about how pandemics end? Two major ways: Herd immunity when 50-60% of the population develop the disease and it is no longer passed on, and vaccine. So if 99.99% of young people survive, why try to stop its spread? Many of the young people do not even develop symptoms.

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 2:41pm

Not true, but hey, if you haven't learned by now, there's no hope.

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 8:47pm

This is MSU in the summer with no classes in session? MSU is planning in-person classes in the Fall? Other universities and schools are too? Sooooooooooooo ridiculous. Maybe in other countries it could be possible, but no way here. Americans are fools who throw the baby out with the bath water, LITERALLY.

Jake K
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 11:43am

Okay folks...we're talking bar, here. Drink in hand, socializing, hanging out around the bar. Nothing distant about it. Mandatory masks? How? Mask with a slit in it to accommodate a straw? How can one chug a beer without exposure? no more body shots? Lots of loud talking, singing and the like. Ladies making a group restroom run. How could it ever be "safe?" A limited occupancy restaurant maybe. But a bar? Identify the risk and make decisions accordingly. Be accountable for your actions without looking for someone else to give you directions.

Expect nothing
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 1:08pm

Too late. Close them all. Could have been limited entrance or outside beer garden style, but Americans are too stupid to expect reasonable behavior. Poor employees and business owners have to suffer because customers are jerks.

Brian DuBridge
Fri, 07/03/2020 - 6:27pm

Hmmmm. Nobody hospitalized. Burden hospitals? They were never burdened. You didn’t hear how many hospital workers were laid off because the governor forbid normal health care?

Enough selfishness? We see your trantrum now, and it goes against the grain of American freedom of self determination.

You’re afraid? If a mask makes it safe, wear a mask! Then you’ll be safe and other’s course of action won’t affect you! Just to let you know, it doesn’t. All of you crying to shut down establishments that you won't frequent anyway! Butinskis.