Those initial cases turned into an outbreak when the bar closed for customers. By Friday afternoon, the count of people affected was as high as 63. By 7 p.m., the total had grown to 76.
Health officials say they probably haven’t finished identifying people 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 know where you are on 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 one day and just end it.”
The situation in Harper comes as Michigan’s coronavirus case count increases, with an increase among people under the age of 30 since June 5. From March 1 to June 5, about 16 percent of Michigan cases were among people ages 0-29. But from June 5 to June 26, cases in that age group rose to nearly 31 percent.
Overall, Michigan has had 62,695 coronavirus cases and 5,885 deaths, as of Friday. The seven-day average was 267, the highest since June 5.
The outbreak in East Lansing raises questions about how the virus will be controlled near university campuses as universities plan to reopen this fall.
At the same time, at least two states, Florida and Texas, announced Friday that they will close the gates amid sharp increases in COVID-19 cases. That news sparks fear in troubled bars and restaurants in Michigan, where they were ordered to close from mid-March to June 8.
“We have been paralyzed,” 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 released a statement this week, along with a list of improvements they are 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 clients 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 could not survive the coronavirus shutdown that started in March. June 8 Bars and restaurants were allowed to open at 50 percent of capacity.
“We are not made to survive 50 percent,” said Ellis.
The reopening sparked a wave of business, he said, but now many bars and restaurants report that traffic is slowing. As a result, he said, many are keen to adhere to social distancing to maintain the business and avoid having to temporarily close if a staff member becomes ill.
However, a common problem, he said, are customers who refuse to wear masks.
“Customers do what they want to do,” said Ellis. A week after opening, members reported rudeness to staff as their main concern.
“They are not there to fight the people who say, ‘I don’t want to wear a mask,'” Ellis said of the restaurant and bar workers. “It is very difficult for the owners.”
Vail, the county health officer, said there is a solution for bars: Deny entry to anyone who does not wear a mask.
Local health departments already license bars and restaurants. Vail said they also have the authority to add the social distancing requirements found in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders to their licensing standards.
Now, Vail said, restaurant inspections will also look for a six-foot distance between tables and staff masks as part of the routine application. Your staff is starting that now, and it could result in increasing actions, such as hearings and educational sessions, all of which involve costs. The final action could be to close a facility.
Meanwhile, she is trying to encourage compliance. Seeing the scalar case count at Harper’s immediately after it opens indicates that everyone in bars and restaurants will benefit from the increased protection coming from the masks, she said.
That’s not a question on nearby campus favorites like Crunchy’s and the Peanut Barrel, according to those companies. Both are posting posters and emphasizing that customers must join staff to wear masks.
“The last thing we want is to close again because someone who works for us or a client is exposed,” said Meghan Bell, manager of Peanut Barrel. The restaurant offers masks to patrons, and the staff outlines the policy while seating patrons.
So far, the Peanut Barrel has delivered at least 1,000 masks, Bell said. Most people agree to use it, although some complain.
“It has improved since it all happened at Harper’s,” he said.
Vail said health officials across the state can look to East Lansing to take a look at the coronavirus spikes that could occur this fall in university cities.
The concern, he said, is that “we will have people of student age who meet at favorite places and leave.”
East Lansing officials are preparing to deal with it. Mayor Ruth Beier said she asked the Harper owners not to open when they spoke before the June 12 opening.
“They called me and they wanted to make sure it would be safe,” said Beier. They talked about the tables bolted to the floors and a new air handling system to reduce the risk of infection.
But Beier said he looked inside the bar the first week it opened and saw dancers without a mask dancing and little social detachment. She said there was no notice at the door that someone needed a mask to enter.
“In many 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 be opened safely.
“I don’t necessarily blame the owners of Harper’s,” he continued. “It is all its configuration. It may be impossible to keep him safe. “
In an email to Bridge, the Rileys said they had taken all steps to comply with the guidelines, and their next steps are to go “further” to gain the trust of the community.
There is no date yet for the reopening, the Rileys said. The opening “will not be until after we can ensure that even more 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 monitor customers waiting to enter the bar while standing on the sidewalks of the city, which “we have no control or authority over them, “said the Rileys.
That may change next week. East Lansing City Council will vote Tuesday on a proposal to allow Beier to declare a health emergency, which in turn will allow the city to enforce social distancing on the 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 the streets so that the ability to eat outside can be increased.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign legislation next week to expand bar and restaurant sales options, including the possibility of selling. alcohol to go and deliver it to customers.
That legislation was offering hope to many bars and restaurants, Ellis said. The outbreak has dampened optimism.
Now, they see the East Lansing outbreak as a sign that they face even more vulnerabilities in reopening. Now they fear being shut down again if the virus can’t be controlled in group settings, and they want customers to know that they consider the masks to be their lifesaver, not a political statement.
Another shutdown could be devastating, Ellis said.
“We are still afraid of that happening,” he said. “We knew as restaurant owners that people will come to our place who have COVID. That is why we are prepared the best we can with disinfection, cleaning, everything.
“We just need the public to help us.”