LANSING — Ingham County restaurants will be under tighter restrictions than the rest of Michigan because of a coronavirus outbreak at an East Lansing bar, the county health department announced Monday.
No matter their size, restaurants are allowed a maximum of 75 customers dining at a time. All restaurants must continue to seat only half their normal capacity, up to 75 patrons.
“Large crowds are difficult to control,” Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said in a release about the new restrictions. “By allowing no more than 75 people, restaurants and bars will be better able to enforce social distancing and the use of masks and face coverings.
“I strongly encourage all bars and restaurants to strictly enforce safety measures and to do all they can to help stop the spread of coronavirus in our community.”
An “alarming” coronavirus outbreak at Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub in East Lansing caused local cases of COVID-19 to spike, Vail said.
As of Monday afternoon, 107 COVID-19 cases are linked to the Harper’s outbreak, including one that forced LeRoy’s Classic Bar and Grill to close in south Lansing.
Meanwhile, Ingham County is seeing a dramatic increase in new cases. Nearly 50 were reported over the weekend, putting the county at 961 confirmed cases.
Nearby Eaton and Clinton counties saw 11 and 6 new cases over the weekend, respectively. Some are linked to Harper’s, health officials said.
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The Harper’s outbreak stretches “basically from southwest Michigan to the Lake [Michigan],” Vail said, including cases in metro-Detroit and Calhoun County.
The attention garnered by the outbreak stretched even further. National news outlets picked up the story and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cited it as a reason he might delay allowing indoor dining in the city.
Although the outbreak is troubling, the attention serves as a reminder to take COVID-19 seriously, Vail said.
“The attention I think is causing some young people to have some ‘a-ha’ moments and is causing people in general to go, ‘we’re not through this,” she said.
Vail re-examined the rules for restaurants operating during the coronavirus pandemic — which, if there is no local restriction, allow restaurants to open with 50% — because of the Harper’s outbreak.
Harper’s will not be allowed to reopen until Vail gives explicit permission, she said.
“I need to see a plan for them,” she said. “I need to know what they’re doing. They need to have an evaluation and they are not allowed to open [until then].”
County health officers have the authority to impose stricter rules than the state during public health emergencies.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed Michigan restaurants to reopen with precautions — like limiting capacity, requiring staff to wear masks and closing self-serve stations — starting June 8.
In an email, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said the governor’s team is tracking case numbers and will adjust rules about dining accordingly. The onus is on bar and restaurant owners and customers to act safely by social distancing, wearing masks and taking safety precautions.
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Ingham County health officials are contact tracing the Harper’s outbreak as cases are identified. It has been challenging because patients don’t always know the identity of people they were close to while at the bar.
The health department is better equipped to find people now than it was early in the pandemic, but that might not be enough to stop the virus from spreading like it did in March and April.
“We’re in a different place,” Vail said. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t immediately go back down the other way.”
Contact Carol Thompson at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @thompsoncarolk. Reporter Ken Palmer contributed to this story.