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Ingham County Health Officer Urges: 'We've Got A Choice Here' After East Lansing Bar Outbreak

A graph show's roughly 24 percent of COVID cases in Ingham County are in people ages 20-29 after an outbreak at a popular college bar in East Lansing.
Ingham County Health Department
A graph show's roughly 24 percent of COVID cases in Ingham County are in people ages 20-29 after an outbreak at a popular college bar in East Lansing.

Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub had been open for just two weeks after a month’s long closure before closing their doors again last Sunday. Now they’re the origin of a coronavirus outbreak. More than 60 people have tested positive for COVID-19 after going to Harper’s, and people who went between June 12-20th are being asked by the Ingham County Health Department to self-quarantine.

The popular East Lansing college bar re-opened it’s 450 tables, deck, bar area and dance floor at 50 percent capacity on June 8th when Governor Gretchen Whitmer moved the remainder of the state to phase four of her re-opening plans, allowing dine-in service at bars and restaurants to reopen.

The months long dry-spell left businesses starved for customers and nightlife revelers hungry for the pre-pandemic party scene. When Harper’s re-opened, they got just that—a line that wrapped around the building entrance with unmasked college-aged patrons standing within 6-feet of one another. Inside, videos showed kids dancing, drinks in hand, under strobe lights and seemingly unbothered by the threat of the deadly virus.

By Friday, 60 people who went to Harper’s tested positive for COVID-19 in addition to 3 secondary cases. None are currently hospitalized, and 44 of the people who tested positive live in Ingham County. 17 people were asymptomatic and the age range of those infected is 16-28.  

WKAR’s Abigail Censky spoke with Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail about the outbreak. Below is transcript of their conversation edited for clearness and conciseness.


What Happened?

Abigail Censky: What went wrong at Harper's? Theoretically, this was a business that was following the reopening rules. How did this outbreak happen in that environment?

Linda Vail: A few things. One was the line outside. And, here's the reason. While inside was also concerning, I believe they're equally concerning, not one is more or less than the other. But standing right next to a whole clump of people in the line in that kind of proximity with no mask on for what was likely a very long time is one of the highest risk factors for contracting the virus. So, it is: being close to someone, very close to someone, for a prolonged period of time. Getting close to someone for an incidental contact, not as much, right? Being further away from somebody for a longer period of time, not as much, but being that close for that long of a time means that that line was hazardous.  

I believe, like out on the deck, there was some dragging around of tables. So even though the tables were spaced out, they were drug together. They have since bolted down those tables.

Inside, you know, I can't tell you. I wasn't there. Reports are that a lot of people, despite where the tables were, were up standing in clusters and groups at one table instead of at their own tables. So, should have tried to kind of break that apart and follow the requirements.

Masks are actually required in bars and restaurants for people. It's just a matter of enforcement as to whether it's going to happen or not. So, we know that the public in general is kind of haphazard about this, if nobody's going to enforce it, then ‘whatever.’

As a business they do have the ability to deny entry without it. And within their business, they have the ability to enforce it or ask somebody to leave.

AC: The Ingham County Health Department visited Harper's on the 18th. But it didn't end up closing to the 21st. Why was that?

LV: Well, the cases that we had were not cases of employees in the restaurant. So, that would be a reason to close and deep clean. We went out on the 18th, because of because of a complaint on the 18th. We're also investigating two cases, and determining very via contact tracing that their common source of exposure is Harper’s. So those things kind of came together over a little bit of a period of time, which is why Monday was the closure.

The Burden Of Enforcement

AC: And, are you worried that the onus is essentially falling, in a situation like Harper's, on the waitstaff and the floor manager—those people who might not be the business owners, they're just trying to do their job. Does that create a really risky environment for enforcement?

LV: Well, I would hope that business owners have good relationships with their on-site managers and what we call their person in charge. And the bottom line is when it comes to any sort of rules and regulations that we enforce as a health department, that person in charge is always responsible for what's going on in that facility. Always.

I mean, that's part of the executive order is that they have to have that person on site. I am not insensitive to the fact that the executive order requirements around social distancing and masks have created a lot of angst and a lot of hostile activity. At the same time, you know, businesses toss people out for unruly behavior. If we run into situations with people getting, testy, unruly, hostile, then your option is also to remove them from your facility.

Will There Be Crackdowns?

AC: Is there a situation where the Ingham County Health Department cracks down?

LV: We are already kind of putting out that warning. We've got a choice here. You as businesses do have the authority, it's right embedded in the executive businesses do have the authority to refuse entry to anyone who is not wearing a mask.

So, my advice to them has been, ‘you probably should start doing that.’ And if we don't, we are going to run the risk of closing bars and restaurants again. I don't want to do it. They don't want for it to happen.

It's not like I'm threatening to close them right now. We're trying to contain an outbreak from a place. We need to keep containing this rather than punishing everyone for what happened in one place. But it will happen again. It will happen more places. It's happening across the state.

If you look at the date that we open bars and restaurants and the upward tick in cases across the state, I would say that that's a pretty strong correlation. And may very well be what we call causation. You know, we don't have all the data to show that yet, but it's starting to look like you know, opening bars and restaurants is creating this uptick.

We've got to get it under control bars and restaurant, owners, proprietors, managers, persons in charge can help us and in turn, it helps them to stay open.

Find more information about COVID-19 cases in Ingham County, here

Follow Abigail on Twitter: @AbigailCensky

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