East Lansing bar keeps liquor license after ‘superspreader’ COVID-19 event

Ingham Health Department to inspect Harper’s

Harper's in East Lansing | Susan J. Demas

Owners of an East Lansing restaurant and bar pinpointed as a major COVID-19 spread site told state regulators the situation grew out of their control, but reiterated claims that they followed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s health protocols for restaurants and bars.

A June outbreak of COVID-19 — which swept premises of Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub near Michigan State University and directly sickened 144 patrons and 43 people second-hand — raised questions about its sanitary practices. Local and international media picked up the story about the spike in cases. 

Harper’s had reopened on June 8, as allowed under Whitmer’s orders, but ended up shutting back down on June 20 after multiple cases were linked back to the restaurant. An employee also got sick, which is grounds for a bar or restaurant to immediately close and deep clean, per one of Whitmer’s executive orders.

That caught the attention of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (LCC). During a Thursday Zoom hearing that lasted almost three hours, LCC commissioners posed questions to the owners of Harbrinel Inc., known as Harper’s. 

The commission did not move to suspend or revoke Harper’s Class C or Brewpub licenses. But LCC Chair Pat Gagliardi did appoint Commissioner Geralyn Lasher to work with the Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) on how Harper’s should move forward. 

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The health department also wants a full inspection of Harper’s once its owners have a plan to safely open back up. 

The fiasco has led several people in the East Lansing community to voice their experiences with Harper’s and its business practices. A petition asking the ICHD to shut down Harper’s and another supporting the restaurant are both gaining traction. 

What led to the hearing

The commission, part of the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), previously ordered Harper’s to participate in the hearing to “show cause” of the validity of its liquor licenses and to answer questions on steps taken — or not taken — to follow the executive orders Whitmer put in place to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harper’s reopened on June 8, the day the governor allowed Michigan bars and restaurants to resume in-person operations at half-capacity. Patrick Riley — who owns Harper’s with Trisha Riley, his wife — told commissioners the reopening was not advertised. But posts on social media show there were advertisements.

Crowd sizes outside their establishment ended up ballooning as college students realized they were open, Patrick Riley said. Videos and photos taken the night of June 8 and morning of June 9 showed patrons ignored social distancing and most did not wear masks while they stood in line outside the restaurant. Similar conditions could be seen inside.

Gagliardi had the videos — plus coverage from additional news outlets — admitted to the record as evidence.

The Rileys admitted it was difficult to control patrons in common areas, like the Harper’s dance floor and city sidewalks. Patrick also claimed there is no Michigan Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA) or Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance on how to prevent mingling in common areas.

He said in hindsight, he wished he hadn’t allowed dancing or the presence of a DJ because it led to a less manageable crowd. 

ICHD contacted Harper’s on June 18, after two individuals who visited the restaurant tested positive for COVID-19. Then an employee tested positive on June 20, which led Harper’s to shut down again. It has since remained closed.

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ICHD later reported 14 people who visited the bar tested positive for COVID-19. Cases traced back to Harper’s grew over the next few weeks and ICHD warned people who had visited the bar between June 12 and June 20 to quarantine for 14 days. 

The outbreak led Whitmer to issue another executive order on July 1, which bans bars in south and central Michigan from indoor service if they make more than 70% of their profits from liquor.

Linda Vail, an ICHD health officer, told commissioners the Harper’s outbreak fit the definition of a “multi-day” superspreader event. She also said the 144 primary cases were traced back to primarily 18 to 28 year olds. 

The median and mean age for cases traced back to Harper’s is about 21, according to Vail. 

Owners promise new health protocols

The Rileys also spoke at length about health protocols they put in place before the June 8 reopening.

The pair told commissioners they took several actions in accordance with Whitmer’s executive orders. Inside tables were moved to be six feet apart to follow social distancing, booths that could not be moved were separated by Plexiglass and signage was placed inside and outside the restaurant to alert patrons to wear face coverings. Social distancing stickers were placed along the establishment’s stairs and the city sidewalk that runs alongside it.

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The Rileys claimed they bought single-use silverware, replaced glassware with plastic and purchased 180 gallons of 80% alcohol sanitizer for cleaning purposes. Employees were also trained in new policies and procedures, Patrick said. 

In the future, Harper’s plans to refuse entry to anyone without a mask and only let patrons take them off while seated at tables, Patrick said. The Rileys admitted to only requiring employees, not customers, to wear masks during their brief reopening. 

They say they plan to have the restaurant deep-cleaned and they will stop playing loud music.

Health inspectors will also examine the establishment before it has any chance of reopening. Vail said the ICHD will give the Rileys a to-do list to be completed before they can open back up.

Petitions to close down Harper’s circulate

The outbreak brought significant media attention to Harper’s and its business practices. The second iteration of a petition to shut down the restaurant has garnered almost 1,000 signatures after the first was taken off Change.org.

Another petition — one to “save” Harper’s — also is making the rounds.

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Kyra Wieber, a local resident who started the “Close Harper’s East Lansing” petition to ICHD, also compiled a Twitter thread that contains allegations that unprofessional practices were routinely perpetuated by Harper’s. Wieber says she is a former employee. 

Several allegations in the thread range from unsanitary conditions to drug dealing by Harper’s employees and abusive language from management and owners. Several women also say they worked at Harper’s as bartenders or servers, but left because they were subjected to sexism, sexual harassment or assault and feared retaliation if they reported it. 

The Rileys deny the allegations – something they reiterated during the Thursday hearing. Kelly Allen, one of their attorneys, said they have nothing to do with petitions or social media posts. 

However, State News reporter Sara Tidwell reports the Rileys emailed her to say the first Change.org petition was taken down for “violating community guidelines relating to defamatory statements.” Tidwell also pointed out that Harper’s linked the petition in support of them on their Instagram account. It appears the link has since been removed.