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Harper's bar owner to state: COVID-19 outbreak a 'rude awakening'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The owners of an East Lansing bar made infamous by a June 8 gathering that health officials have traced to nearly 200 coronavirus cases told state liquor regulators Thursday that they took precautions ahead of opening June 8.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order at the time required bars and restaurants to stay below 50% capacity, maintain six feet between tables and gave facilities the ability to turn away patrons not wearing masks. 

But photos and videos from the night of June 8 at Harper's Brew and Pub showed mask-less college students standing close together while waiting in line and on the dance floor at Harper's

Harper's Restaurant and Brewpub in East Lansing.

Patrick Riley, owner of Harper's Brew and Pub, defended some of the preparations the restaurant made to comply with the COVID-19 rules. But he admitted in "hindsight" that the restaurant should have more strictly enforced mask use and social distancing.

"I wish we didn’t have the DJ, and I wish we did not have any dancing," Riley said.

He later added that the situation at Harper's was a "rude awakening" for many East Lansing restaurants, and they're "terrified" that something similar may happen to them. 

"It's been a message that’s been heard loud and clear," Riley said. 

Harper's Brew and Pub was ordered July 16 to appear before the commission to detail its efforts to ensure safe operations after nearly 200 positive cases of COVID-19 last month were linked to the bar. The bar was ordered to defend the status of its Class C and Brewpub licenses and permits.

The nearly three-hour Zoom hearing was beset by technical difficulties, audio feedback and dropped calls.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Commission Chairman Pat Gagliardi said commissioner Geralyn Lasher would work with the Ingham County Health Department to review Harper's reopening plan before the bar starts welcoming customers back. 

"We do not want this super-spreader story to get any worse," Gagliardi said.  

The bar and restaurant created a preparedness guide based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Preparation and the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, arranged tables to be distanced six feet, and set up Plexiglass between booths ahead of their June 8 reopening, Riley said.

The bar, which closed June 20 because of the struggle to distance clients waiting outside the location, provided free face masks when it reopened, did health screenings on employees, set up social distancing markers on the outside stairs and sidewalks, and held training with employees. 

The restaurant also purchased 110 gallons of 80% sanitizer, invested in disposable menus, silverware and condiments, and installed touchless sinks and toilets, Riley said. The restaurants capacity was 950, but had been lowered to 250 to comply with the order.

"What we didn’t have, but hindsight gives us now, is the governor’s order, the most recent one … which basically says: Don’t let anybody get up for the table and mingle in common areas," Riley said.

When the restaurant opened June 8, Riley said he didn't think the restaurant would have as many visitors as it did that night because it was a Monday. He said he did not advertise that the bar was open, but word got out over social media.

When a manager called him to say there were long lines, Riley said he went outside to break up the group. 

"I personally went outside and made everyone on our property back off and get off our property," Riley said, noting the restaurant also later added tables on the dance floor to discourage dancing. 

But commissioners peppered Riley with questions regarding why he didn't make clients visiting the restaurant wear masks if they were up from the table. 

Gagliardi also criticized the clear lack of social distancing among individuals waiting outside the restaurant and inside the restaurant. 

"I think it’s a big flaw in your program,” Gagliard said. "...I really think the ball was dropped as far as social distancing goes both inside your facility and outside your facility.”

Noting that the reopening happened prior to the governor's mask mandate, Riley said he thought people had the freedom not to wear a mask if that's what they wanted. While employees had masks to give to customers, they did not make it a requirement for entry.

"At this time, when we reopen, they will not get through the door" without a mask, Riley said. 

He also listed a slew of other changes, including closing the dance floor; ending loud music so customers didn't have to shout and increase spread; installing Plexiglass around the bar; and banning e-cigarettes, which we're being shared by college students.

After Harper's closed June 20, the restaurant wrote on its Facebook page June 22 that it planned to "implement a program to eliminate lines, and to modify our HVAC system to install an air purifying technology while the air is being conditioned and re-circulated. When we have finished implementing these two strategies, we will have the most state-of-the-art neighborhood venue for you to visit safely."

On July 23, the Ingham County health department announced that the bar near Michigan State University was linked to 22 positive cases of coronavirus. Over two weeks, the number of cases related to Harper's rose to over 180.The total currently stands at 188.

The Ingham County Health Department said in a June 23 press release its inspectors found that the pub was following appropriate safety procedures.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com