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88 People Got Sick With The Coronavirus From One Bar Reopening In Michigan

"More and more businesses that definitely don't want to close again need to understand that they are our biggest enforcement army right now."

Last updated on June 30, 2020, at 1:31 p.m. ET

Posted on June 29, 2020, at 6:45 p.m. ET

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Courtesy Alexa Ligon

Alexa Ligon hadn't been out partying for months. She returned home from college in California to quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic with her parents in East Lansing, Michigan.

So when bars and restaurants in the area finally reopened on June 8, she and a group of friends finally went out for one of their birthdays at Harper's Restaurant & Brew Pub, a popular college bar. They didn't wear masks, she said, because the bar did not require them.

"I've been cooped up so long, it was finally a chance to go out with some friends. It was obviously appealing," Ligon said. "I haven't known anybody to have gotten sick."

Now, 88 cases of COVID-19 have been traced back to that one bar. Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail told BuzzFeed News on Monday she expects that number to rise.

"I doubt we went from 51 cases on Thursday, 76 Friday [morning], 85 by the end of the day," said Vail, "to only 3 more over the weekend."

The age range of those infected at Harper's skews young, between 16 and 28, like its crowd. The average age is 21. At least 25 of them are Michigan State University students.

Now, the Ingham County Health Department is asking everyone who visited the bar between June 12 and its reclosing on June 20 to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Ligon and her friends went on June 15. So far, none of them have had any symptoms. Her parents have taken her temperature daily. She said she'd get a test but doesn't know where it's available, and none of her friends have gotten a test.

She's been a little nervous about getting sick, particularly after reading the media reports about Harper's and learning of two other people she knows who have tested positive for COVID-19.

"I think I made the choice to go, so if I were to get it, that would be on me," Ligon said. "I chose to go out and not wear a mask and go to a place where I do run the risk of catching it."

But Vail said the pressure should be on businesses to implement rules and demand customers follow them. She said she visited one casino restaurant that checked people's temperatures, had tables clearly 6 feet apart, and had all customers in masks until they were sitting down ready to eat.

"More and more businesses that definitely don't want to close again need to understand that they are our biggest enforcement army right now," Vail said. "Their ability to stay open lies in their own hands."

Harper's did abide by the government's social distancing guidelines, which include limiting bar capacity to 50%. (Vail said she understands that Harper's actually limited guests to 225 when technically it could have allowed 250 in.)

"Normally it’s, like, insanely packed there," Ligon said. "It was honestly very empty when I went."

Part of the problem, explained Vail, is that not all bars and restaurants are the same.

"In general, there are bars and restaurants — the ones somebody my age might go to — where the tables are 6 feet away. You sit down and have dinner and go home," said Vail, who is 59. "The bars and restaurants one might consider a nightclub — as they also happen to have a DJ and dance floor — are still a bar and restaurant. You can't dissect that out."

Video from the night Harper's reopened shows a packed dance floor.

Inside the Harper's... the crowd is enjoying the first night of reopening @thesnews

In a Facebook post, Harper's put the blame for a lack of social distancing on people waiting outside the busy venue.

"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," the company 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."

Video of the line from the night the bar reopened shows people didn't wear masks and weren't socially distanced.

The line by Harper's seems a bit longer than at Lou & Harry's. Still not many wearing seen wearing masks... @thesnews

However, the governor's executive order for reopening clearly allows businesses to deny entry to individuals who refuse to wear a mask, and businesses should take advantage of that, Vail noted.

"My friends and I — we wear masks, but it wasn't required, so we didn't wear the masks," said Ligon. She said she would happily have worn her mask in the venue if it had been a condition of entry.

A spokesperson for Harper's told BuzzFeed News that the bar is implementing new protocols for when it reopens, including that masks must be worn by patrons until they sit at their table and they will refuse service if people do not wish to wear one.

But Ligon said she was entirely surprised by the news of the outbreak at Harper's.

"I don't know how up to date they were on their hygiene. There wasn't soap in the men's bathroom," she said, adding that a patron was handing out hand sanitizer to people.

A spokesperson for Harper's said the bar checks restroom supplies hourly and provides soap and hand sanitizer.

So far, the positive cases from Harper's have been mild, with up to one-third being asymptomatic. No one has been hospitalized. Data shows that young people are more likely to be asymptomatic and only experience a mild version of the virus. However, young people sometimes get very sick — and lots of them live with older relatives.

"Our concern, honestly, is the secondary infections," said Vail, pointing out that 3 of the 88 cases so far were people who did not go to Harper's themselves.

The bar has closed for the time being while it implements further social distancing and modifies its air conditioning system.

But that's not enough for Ligon.

"I wouldn’t go out to a bar again," she said.

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