LANSING, Mich. – Michigan liquor regulators on Thursday ordered an East Lansing bar to answer questions about a coronavirus outbreak that infected 186 people and was a factor in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision to halt indoor service at establishments that chiefly sell alcohol.
A hearing, scheduled for July 23, could result in a license suspension or revocation for Harper's Restaurant and Brewpub, which currently is closed. But the purpose primarily is fact-finding, said Jeannie Vogel, spokeswoman for the state Liquor Control Commission.
The outbreak occurred last month and attracted widespread attention, shortly after bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen for in-person service following a monthslong shutdown to slow the spread of the disease. The order points to news outlets having shown large crowds inside the bar not adhering to social distancing or wearing masks despite the governor's order, which allowed customers to remove their face coverings only while seated.
Regulators want Harper's to “show cause” as to the status of its licenses, answer questions on what steps it took or failed to take to comply with the governor's measure, and demonstrate that its plan for reopening will protect patrons and employees from another outbreak. Of the 186 COVID-19 cases linked to the bar, 144 of the infected people visited the establishment and 42 others were likely infected by someone who went there, said Ingham County Health Department spokeswoman Amanda Darche.
A message seeking comment was left with Harper's owners.
Following the outbreak, which was linked to customers who visited June 12-20, Whitmer issued an order requiring that on-premises establishments outside of northern Michigan close for indoor service if more than 70% of their gross receipts are from alcohol sales. A 50% capacity cap also remains in place.
Ingham County, where Harper's is located, this week relaxed an order that further limited restaurants' capacity to no more than 75 people, noting that cases had trended downward.
The state health department on Thursday reported 645 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths, including 13 deaths that occurred weeks or days earlier. The seven-day average of cases remained on the rise, though deaths and hospitalizations — there were roughly 540 COVID-19 patients in Michigan hospitals as of Wednesday — continued to hold steady, according to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by The COVID Tracking Project.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said this week that there is much more testing now than at the beginning of the pandemic, when those testing positive were more likely to be in the hospital. Also, she said, the age bracket with the highest number of new confirmed cases is 20-29 — younger, typically healthier adults.
“Right now, we're not seeing the hospitalizations and deaths go up. But again, that also tends to be a lagging indicator,” Khaldun said.
Also Thursday, a judge rejected a movie theater's lawsuit challenging the Democratic governor's closure of movie theaters in lower Michigan to curb the virus. Emagine Royal Oak had wanted to hold a Juneteenth-related film festival to promote racial equality but was warned not to by the state attorney general's office.
“It takes only a moment of rational speculation to discover conceivable support for the continued closure of indoor movie theaters,” U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney in Kalamazoo wrote in denying a preliminary injunction to allow the festival. He said the state did not seek to suppress Emagine's political speech but rather the ”congregation of large crowds, indoors, for hours at a time.”
Whitmer, who has prevailed in several suits against her orders, said the judge “concluded what we already know: that we must continue taking aggressive action against COVID-19, including limiting large gatherings, to protect Michigan families and save lives.”