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Coronavirus doesn’t kill the party in Michigan. And that has many worried.

EAST LANSING — Work from home. Minimize social gatherings. Stay at least six feet away from others in public. 

Michigan knows the warnings well, as the highly contagious coronavirus is moving through the state and nation, prompting an avalanche of closures in hopes of halting its spread.

What better time to party, ask some from East Lansing to Detroit.

“I’ve never waited in lines this long,” Natalia Asimakis, 23, a Michigan State University student said on Saturday as she stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a line of at least 50 to get into Harper’s bar steps from campus. 

College students weren’t the only ones flouting officials’ warnings to avoid large gatherings. Across the state, revelers celebrating St. Patrick’s Day early filed into bars — and even those complying with the 250-person limit set this week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer often made for close quarters, depending on the size of the venue. 

In Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood Sunday, bars overflowed with partygoers including nurse Michelle Priebe, 41. 

“What’s going to happen is going to happen,” Priebe said of the virus. “I’m washing my hands, I’m not touching my face, I’m drinking my whiskey and life is good.”

The attitudes are prompting a debate about whether limits are enough to halt the spread of coronavirus. Italy, which had as many coronavirus cases as Michigan a few weeks ago, is now under complete lockdown after warnings about social distancing were largely ignored.

 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Sunday said she's seen online images of "people cramming into facilities" that are "incredibly disturbing." She said she's in touch with fellow governors and may announce "next steps in the very near future." 

Her remarks came hours after Attorney General Dana Nessel and others warned Michigan will increase enforcement about crowd limits, while other public health officials begged partiers to be smart.

“Individuals may believe they are young and do not have compromised immune systems and therefore they are not at high risk of getting ill. That is true — young, healthy people are not at high risk of getting coronavirus,” said Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

“But they can become carriers. If they go to a bar or they go to a restaurant or they go to any room, frankly, and stand close to people who are carriers, they can become carriers themselves. Then they can go home and see a parent or a grandparent who is high-risk and transmit coronavirus to them.”

This weekend, Oakland County in suburban Detroit, Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, and Ingham County, home to MSU, issued health orders cutting in half occupancy limits of bars and restaurants. Orders in Kent and Oakland counties also extend to gyms.

The orders came because, in many cases, the 250-person limit makes little sense for smaller spaces, said Linda Vail, health officer of Ingham County.

“Safety is not a one size fits all number,” Vail said.

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Some health officials question whether even those rules are enough. On Sunday, Ohio and Illinois ordered the temporary closures of bars and restaurants, while Massachusetts ordered restaurants to be takeout-only starting Tuesday.

"If we’re serious about #socialdistancing: Local officials should ban ALL eat-in options at restaurants, eateries, and bars," Abdul El-Sayed, Detroit's former health director and a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, wrote on Twitter.

"All orders for food requiring preparation should be placed by phone or online and there should be no waiting allowed inside."

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint doctor who helped expose the Flint water crisis, agreed, writing on Twitter, "this is not an extension of spring break. Young people are vectors. Time to close bars, restaurants, malls, movies, etc."

A complete shutdown would “cripple the entire industry,” countered Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars.

His group supports the 250-person limit, as does the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said its president Justin Winslow.

“This is a once in a multi-generational pandemic,” Winslow said.

No bars or restaurants have been given citations yet for violating the 250-person limit. But Nessel warned that violators could face misdemeanors or even liquor license revocations.

“Bars and restaurants have to appreciate that it’s much better for them to obey the order as it is now and stay open,” Nessel said, adding the state is attempting to keep the economy going while protecting public safety. 

If people don’t abide by the rule, the state may have to take more stringent measures to prevent further spread of the virus, Nessel said, including a curfew or complete shutdown of bars and restaurants.

Bar owners said they are taking the order seriously.

Harper’s, the bar where Asimakis and crowds of other students went in East Lansing, limited the number of people in the bar to fewer than 250 in case police stopped by, said manager Dante Brey. 

The spread of coronavirus in a crowded room “definitely is a concern,” Brey said. 

“We just try to be cautious and take whatever measures we need to. We have our employees wearing gloves,” he said.

Stephen Gasteyer has a different take. The MSU sociology professor was walking his dogs this weekend and snapped a photo inside another bar in East Lansing, The Riv, and posted it to his Facebook page.

“If what we’re trying to do is contain contagion, we can’t have hundreds of students pouring into bars, drinking, losing inhibitions and exchanging fluids as they’re doing this,” he told Bridge.

“This isn’t the way to contain a virus.”

Other bars are using the virus as a promotional tool. Detroit restaurant Cork & Gabel posted on Facebook Friday night: “COVID-19? We have the cure (well not FDA approved… yet) but we have our special cocktail for the weekend.”

Whitmer said state gaming officials also are working on plans to temporarily close casinos, which continued to operate over the weekend.  The facilities added precautions like sanitizing highly trafficked areas and separating tables and slot machines, while MotorCity Casino  announced it is complying with the 250-person limit by “constructing temporary walls to section off various areas of the casino floor” to keep crowds under the 250-person limit. 

Bridge reporter Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.

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