Monday, July 6, 2020

East Lansing City Council out of the loop, powerless to enforce social distancing

June 26, 2020
Screenshot from the East Lansing City Council's May 26 virtual meeting.
Screenshot from the East Lansing City Council's May 26 virtual meeting. —

The East Lansing City Council opened up discussions for enforcing social distancing with mask requirements at their June 23 meeting, following news of an outbreak of the coronavirus linked to Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub that morning.

“I’m tired," Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens said. "I’m tired of people not understanding that we’re in this together, and I’m tired of being responsive rather than being proactive. This is the most pivotal time in East Lansing history, we have a lot of things going on and I think we need to be working together on this.” 

As of Thursday, 51 cases have been confirmed linked to the East Lansing establishment.

With MSU students returning to campus in the fall, Stephens said he wants to be able to shut things down if they get out of control.

In doing so, he said he would like to see more communication from the university in coming plans for reopening. In the decision to bring students back to campus, Stephens said he received almost no communication from university officials or the Reopening Campus Task Force.

After seeing students flood to bars when the university shut down in March, Stephens said the students’ return will likely see the same outcome in the fall, leaving the city to deal with a lot of issues as a result.

Mayor Ruth Beier said while it is impossible to reopen safely in the midst of a pandemic, there are agents who could do a lot to keep the community safe. MSU could choose to remain closed, bars and restaurants could go back to takeout only and young people could stay out of lines and social distance, she said.

“What’s happening in this country and this state, and it sounds like, this city, is that public opinion has shifted from protecting people’s personal health to protecting their economic health,” Beier said. "People are going to be able to get paid because they’re working, but everybody including them also has a better chance of dying. The only way to be safe when things reopen is to not go to those places.” 

Beier said City Manager George Lahanas made an attempt Tuesday to reach out to the Ingham County Health Department. The response received effectively said this was the job of the health department, not the city, Beier said.

“I’m just as angry as you are. But unfortunately, the way the structure works in Michigan, the city that actually houses the businesses that are doing the things that are killing the city’s residents, has no power,” Beier said.

Back in March, Beier said every city council member worked daily to try and do something to keep the COVID-19 case load from spiking. Each day, she said, they were told over and over that it was not their job. Months later, they are in exactly the same position as before.

Council Member Mark Meadows said he met with bar owners in the past and was told they can’t require customers to wear a mask upon entering their establishment. Meadows noted bar and restaurant owners do have the ability to restrict entrance to those unwilling to comply with the order. If they can put up a sign that says “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” he said they can certainly put up a sign that says “no mask, no service.”

City Attorney Tom Yeadon said the city doesn’t have much power beyond declaring a local state of emergency. Ingham County officials are given the authority to order specific actions which prohibit the presence of individuals in locations or under conditions where imminent danger exists. The local health officer has the power to establish procedures to be followed by all individuals, such as enforcing the executive order requiring masks worn in enclosed spaces.

The city prosecutor and attorney general’s office have the ability to enforce a governor’s executive order and may take actions to shut down a business if deemed necessary, though Yeadon said they would be reluctant to do so. If the city were to try, there would be a question of authority without the expertise to back up their actions.

Any further attempts at enforcement from the city, Yeadon said, raises concerns of liability.

“Once we start making custodial arrests or writing tickets for violation of an executive order, we’re subjecting the city to a significant amount of potential civil liability,” Yeadon said. “When the law says that you are allowed to infringe on people’s constitutional rights ... you have to do so in the least restrictive means possible.”

Even so, if the city were to establish a means of enforcement, Yeadon said further issues would arise when individuals fail to comply. With the city pushing to consider less policing, it becomes hard to take action without sending out officers to take control.

Beier said she completely opposed sending a police officer to approach a line of young people, as bringing more armed officers into the mix creates more problems.

Council Member Jessy Gregg said from her understanding the city already has active duty officers patrolling the downtown area. The only difference is they are not approaching people in line.

“This is a public health pandemic and we now have (51) confirmed cases from Harper’s. It is not a thought experiment. We have (51) people whom have contracted a deadly virus in one of our local businesses where we have officers stationed outside who are not enforcing a governor level protocol in the line,” Gregg said.

Council passed a change to move the closing time of the open-air dining areas to 9 p.m. Lahanas said after seeing the bar crowds, this would be a better time in order to give more separation between outdoor diners and those heading to the bars. 

Council is scheduling a meeting to further discuss these enforcement issues next week, inviting the Responsible Hospitality Commission and county health officials to join the conversation.

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