At Least 107 Cases of Coronavirus Are Linked to One Bar in Michigan

As the U.S. attempts to reopen amid frightening infection numbers, bars like Harper's are showing why that might not be a good idea.
people partying in a bar
Photo: Getty Images

Earlier this month, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order, giving bars and restaurants the OK to reopen for limited dine-in service for the first time since March 16. Any restaurant that decided to resume service on June 8 faced a now-familiar list of restrictions, including pushing all of the tables at least six feet away from each other, and ensuring that they never exceeded 50 percent of their total capacity.


When the (Lansing) City Pulse checked out what was happening in the city on that first evening, it noted that some restaurants were mostly quiet, with a handful of occupied indoor tables. "Then there was neighboring Harper's," it wrote. "By 8:30, a long line had formed on the sidewalk. The patios were jammed. If tables were six feet apart outside, customers certainly were not."

In an accompanying photo, one can see black and yellow "Please Stay Six Feet Apart" stickers on the concrete steps into the restaurant, but other than one woman in platform espadrilles, no one else seems to care. Clusters of men in untucked polos and flip-flops and women in shorts and tank tops are clumped together at the back of the line. No one is wearing a mask.

"People are told if you’re not from the same household, you have to stay six feet apart," Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said at the time. "We have to have people basically respect that. If they don’t, there's not a lot we can do about that."

And then in the least-surprising plot twist ever, last Tuesday, Ingham County officials announced that at least 18 people who had visited Harper's between June 12 and June 20 had tested positive for coronavirus. All of those individuals were between the ages of 19 and 23, and "about half" of them reportedly had a connection to Michigan State University.

In less than one day, the number of positive cases connected to Harper's increased to 43. By Thursday night, it was 51. Then it was 63. And over the weekend, that number jumped to 85 positive cases that were linked to the bar, including 80 patrons and five "secondary infections" among others who had close contact with them. The Ingham County Health Department has since asked anyone who was at Harper's between June 12-20 to self-quarantine for 14 days.


And it gets worse: according to the Detroit Free-Press, "multiple families" in swanky Grosse Pointe Park—almost 100 miles from Lansing—are now in quarantine because at least one Harper's attendee went to a "huge house party" in the neighborhood, exposing dozens of other teens and twentysomethings to the virus. Still others were exposed at a large bonfire that some of the same crowd attended that same weekend.

"I'm just so frustrated," the mother of a 19-year-old COVID-positive bonfire-attendee told the Freep. "I'm so sad. We stayed home as ordered and then let our guard down—and now this." (One woman even acknowledged that Grosse Pointe Park residents could no longer "pretend [coronavirus] doesn't affect affluent neighborhoods such as ours.")

Last Monday, Harper's wrote a lengthy and somewhat tonally bizarre post on its Facebook page. "[W]e have experienced long lines on the public sidewalk in front of our building. We have attempted to instruct customers waiting in line to wear face coverings and practice social distancing through signage on the public sidewalk and with a banner on our railing," it wrote.

"Our oversight of the line on our stairs has been successful, but trying to get customers to follow our recommendations on the public sidewalk has been challenging. Because we have no authority to control lines on public property, we are left with the dilemma of staying open and letting this situation continue, or closing until we can devise a strategy that eliminates the lines altogether."

It also announced that it would be re-closing temporarily to "eliminate lines" and to upgrade its HVAC system to install a vaguely described air-purification system. These improvements, it said, will just be additional costs in addition to the "financial investments" that it put toward upgrading its touch-free restrooms and the "rent, mortgages, car payments, grocery bills and everyday living expenses" that its staff have to contend with.

The post does not directly acknowledge any of the positive coronavirus tests that have been connected to the bar. It also hasn't exactly elicited the sympathy that Harper's seemed to hope for. "So glad that letting college kids get wasted is more important to you than the sacrifices the rest of us have made, working for remotely for months, without child care, to try to keep ourselves and our community safe," one commenter wrote. "This is what happens when we become lax," another added.

By Monday afternoon, 107 cases of coronavirus in 13 different Michigan counties had been linked to Harper's. As a result, Ingham County has issued an emergency order reducing restaurant capacity to 50 percent of total occupancy or a maximum of 75 people, whichever is the smaller number. "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," Vail said.

Sounds easier than it looks.