Trisha and Patrick Riley, owners of Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub and P.T. O’Malley’s, were subject to a show cause hearing by the Michigan Liquor License Commission (MLCC) today regarding the COVID-19 outbreak that occurred from their reopening on June 8.
According to the show cause order, the MLCC called on Harper’s owners to answer questions regarding the steps taken in complying with the original executive order for reopening bars and restaurants and to demonstrate how their plans for reopening will prioritize safety of staff and patrons.
The restaurant was open for 12 days before they voluntarily closed on June 20, the Rileys' lawyer, Kelly Allen, said.
Ingham County Health Department Health Officer Linda Vail said she had received word of 14 reported cases June 23, though that number quickly spiked to 34 by June 24, causing ICHD to issue a quarantine recommendation.
Vail said the health department was at Harper’s on June 18 to investigate the operation of the site per a complaint about lack of social distancing and mask wearing.
It is important to note that Ingham County has reached four weeks since the final exposure date of June 20, and the health department has the ability to close off incident monitoring if they desire. The case count stands at 187, with 144 primary and 43 secondary, according to ICHD Public Information Officer Amanda Darche.
Vail said that Ingham County has stricter limitations on restaurant capacity than the rest of the state in hopes to target large establishments like Harper’s with capacities above 250. Current orders allow 50% capacity or 125 patrons to dine-in at the same time, whichever is less.
At the time of reopening, Patrick said the capacity was limited to 250. The total capacity of the building, he said, is 950.
Patrick said before they originally reopened, they had created a COVID-19 procedures guide and shared it with their staff. He said they placed warning signs everywhere possible, provided free face masks for all, conducted health screenings of and specialized training for employees who were scheduled to work, separated tables and chairs to be socially-distanced and separated those that couldn’t be with plexiglass and switched to disposable use dishes and other items.
Though he also said they did not advertise the reopening on their social media, Harper's Instagram and Twitter pages had advertisements that were similar to the promotions on March 11, the day MSU announced all online classes.
Harper’s received an overwhelming response to their reopening on June 8. He told Commissioner Geralyn Lasher that, despite this, they did not make any changes to the way they were operating because they were unaware that their customers, who were mostly local college students, would mingle.
One specific scenario Patrick brought up to Lasher was regarding a phone call he had received on June 9 about customers pushing socially-distanced tables together. He said the employees working were concerned, though they took immediate action and bolted the deck furniture down.
Patrick said he wishes they would have recognized the issue of allowing their customers to mingle and dance together earlier. He said they had a lot going on with the reopening as a whole, that this detail was not at the forefront of their concern and that they could not find rules about large crowd management from health agencies anywhere.
Patrick also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive orders at the time did not have clear guidelines on whether masks were required for patrons.
However, Vail came forward and retaliated against his claim, stating that she was very aware these types of rules were fully in place and had been for a while by the time the bar reopened. She said that the couple should have used their common sense in this situation, stating that the discrepancy about masks dates back to late March, and government bodies have been clear about their effectiveness since then.
Patrick said he’s a part of the Michigan State COVID-19 Reopening Task Force, though MSU Deputy Spokesperson Dan Olsen said that is untrue.
However, Olsen said Patrick is a part of a collaborative group of stakeholders, which includes MSU, the city of East Lansing, ICHD and a few other bar and restaurant owners in the area. This is a way to share information and resources as it relates to preparing for students to move back this fall. Olsen said this group is not a decision-making body.
East Lansing Police Department Detective Jeff Spitz said in response to reports of under-age patrons, Patrick had supplied him a box of about 1,000 fake IDs in January that had been confiscated. In July, he said he received a box with 400-500 additional IDs.
He said on Thursday-Saturday night, officers walk downtown and make rounds within each establishment. If they notice anything that is a blatant liquor violation, they issue a citation, which will be forwarded to the MLCC for review. During this time frame, Spitz said he did not receive any reports, though City Attorney Tom Yeadon had asked officers to be selective when enforcing executive orders with concerns about the ability to regulate social distancing.
During the June 30 City Council meeting, Yeadon spoke at length about the potential liability of attempts of enforcement outside of the declaration of a local state of emergency.
While the owners had placed markings down the steps and sidewalk in front of the building calling for patrons to maintain a distance of six-feet, the ability to enforce pedestrian traffic on the public sidewalk would ultimately have been out of their hands.
Before Harper’s will be allowed to reopen, MLCC Chairman Patrick Gagliardi said the Rileys must submit a plan to be reviewed by the ICHD. An inspection and evaluation will be conducted by the health department to ensure the establishment will be complying with all executive orders.
Patrick Riley said the plan is to do a “soft-reopening,” first utilizing only the outdoor deck, which holds 150 people. In doing so, he said this allows for a smaller footprint to oversee and an open-air environment to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Once open, Patrick Riley also said all loud music will be eliminated, lines will be made virtual and any customers leaving their table other than to use the restrooms will be escorted out. Several precautions will be placed throughout the establishment, including plexi-glass shields around the main bar, sanitary door openers and a new ban on vaping and electronic cigarettes.
In explaining the cause for retaining their licenses, Trisha spoke on the sense of community surrounding Harper’s, describing it as a family affair. She said it has been rewarding to work with the younger generation and to have the opportunity to encourage them to give back to their community.
“Harper’s is just so much more than a restaurant. It’s a gathering place where people become part of our extended family,” Trisha said. “This business does not just mean a lot to me and to Pat. It means a lot to our extended family and to all the patrons that come to our establishment. We are proud to be active members in this diverse community, and we will always support East Lansing 100%.”
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