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Anatomy of a super spreader: Harper’s outbreak a caution for college bars

As Michigan State University students return to campus this fall, a popular East Lansing restaurant, bar and club hopes to reopen after closing them last month following a COVID-19 outbreak linked to 188 infections. 

But Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub owners promise things will look very different: No more dancing, loud music or bar service. Instead, masks will be mandatory, doors hands-free, social distancing enhanced and lines managed by an app that will include contact tracing features to help public health officials track the virus in the event of another exposure event. 

“If you get up” from a table to go anywhere other than the bathroom or to leave, “you’re going to be escorted out of the building,” owner Pat Riley told the Michigan Liquor Control Commission on Thursday during a remote meeting by Zoom. “It’s just going to be that simple.”

Commissioners, who have the power to revoke Harper’s liquor license, grilled Pat and Tricia Riley for more than two hours in what could be a test case for how the state treats bars and restaurants that fail to adhere to new COVID-19 safety rules. 

Authorities say the bar did not enforce social distancing or mask rules designed to protect employees and staff. 

To date, 144 patrons – average age 21 – who visited Harper’s from June 12 to June 20 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Ingham County Health Director Linda Vail, who said that eight-day span qualified as a “super spreader event. Another 44 people caught the virus from those patrons later on, she said. 

Under an agreement reached Thursday, Harper’s will be required to submit safety plans to both the county health department and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission for review and approval before reopening. 

“We do not want the super spreader story to get any worse, for the Rileys or for us or for the young people, mainly 18 to 29, that are all now COVID-positive,” said Pat Gagliardi, who chairs the state liquor commission. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed bars and restaurant dining rooms in March as the coronavirus slammed Michigan but allowed them to resume in-person service on June 8, provided they adhered to new safety rules. Since late April, residents have also been required to wear masks in enclosed indoor spaces, a rule Whitmer tightened July 10 by adding penalties.

Bars and restaurants are now limited to 50 percent of their normal capacity and are required to maintain social distancing between seated parties. Whitmer orders also direct them to provide physical guides, like signage or floor tape, to ensure that “customers remain at least six feet apart in any lines.” 

Ingham County, home to Michigan State University and dozens of other college bars, has taken additional precautions. Under a local order, bars can only allow a maximum of 125 patrons. 

Harper’s, which operates out of a large facility with multiple spaces and an outdoor patio, is typically allowed to serve up to 950 customers at a time. But it was only allowing 250 people inside at a time when it reopened on June 8. 

Riley said the bar took extra precautions at the time but was not prepared for the swarm of college students that descended on the bar during what would have typically been a quiet Monday. 

Video footage from opening night showed long lines with little social distancing, a crowded dance floor with few masks as customers leaned in to talk over loud tunes. 

“We did not advertise and tell people we were opening on that day,” Riley said. “But as college students are wont to do, they have social media at their fingertips, and the word got out and spread that we were actually open.”

Harper’s had put tables on the dance floor in order to discourage large crowds, but that strategy proved ineffective, Riley said. The bar had tried to follow state rules and federal guidelines, but found no recommendations for how to regulate “common areas, people mingling, or dancing or anything of those natures,” he told commissioners.

Riley acknowledged the bar did not require customers to wear face masks in June. While the bar posted signs and provided free masks to those who wanted one, he said ownership was not aware they had the authority to deny entry to those not wearing one. 

“We thought people had the freedom to deny wearing a face mask,” he said. “We had them at the front door. We wanted them to wear a face mask, but we weren’t going to fight with them at the time.”

The testimony raised questions about how and if other college bars will handle large student crowds this fall. 

“Do you think some of these establishments are too big to have the proper control?” Gagliardi asked Jeff Spitz, a community safety coordinator and liquor liaison officer for the East Lansing police department. 

“My personal opinion on that is, and this comes from over 23 years of dealing with a lot of intoxicated college students, is it is very difficult for an organization that has limited staff members out there trying to control several hundred intoxicated subjects,” Spitz said. 

“It’s a real challenge.”

Harper’s has about 100 employees, and would typically have about 50 to 60 employees working customer-facing jobs on a busy night, Riley said. 

If and when the bar does re-open, a disc jockey will not be among them. 

“Having hindsight, I wish we didn't have the DJ and I wish we had not had any dancing,” Riley acknowledged. “We're going to eliminate loud music so that social distancing measures can be utilized.”


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