What it would take to increase restaurant capacities in Ingham County

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INGHAM COUNTY, Mich. (WLNS)– When Ingham County bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen back in June, capacities were set at a 75 person maximum. Since then, that number has increased to 125. Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said some restaurants owners have recently advocated for the removal of those capacity restrictions or another increase.

“One of the things that I thought when I put that cap on there is the bars and restaurants needed some experience dealing with numbers of people before they had to deal with larger numbers of people,” Vail said.

Even with the Michigan Supreme Court decision that ruled Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Orders were unconstitutional, state and county orders are still in place. While the Emergency Order issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Monday does not specifically address the capacities of bars and restaurants, the Ingham County Health Department’s order does.

“Every state has codes like this that give this kind of authority to public health officials for a reason and it is to be able to swiftly protect large numbers of people from serious illness, serious disease, and death and so that health code is not just a Michigan thing,” Vail said.

With recent complaints about a number of bars and restaurants in East Lansing, Vail said she’s not planning on increasing capacity at this point, but said it’s not completely off the table.

“We want to see restaurants and bars managing the crowds that they have and managing them well. Our experience last weekend with some of the problem spots we saw was much better this last weekend and if we can continue on that path then we can continue to look at that.”

A number of well known college bars in East Lansing have yet to reopen, but Vail said that could change soon.

“I did talk to the owner of The Riv and Rick’s this morning. Really his philosophy has been he’s kind of wanted to sit back and watch others and learn, so that when he does open he has basically positioned himself to do things in ways that, you know, he’s learned lessons from others that have gone before him, so I do think he’s considering opening soon,” Vail said.

Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub, which was tied to hundreds of COVID-19 cases back in June, has also remained closed. Vail said the bar planned to reopen in September, but when the health department issued an order strongly recommending MSU students in East Lansing to quarantine, the owner reversed course.

“They issued a statement saying we had planned to open soon, but we’re now not going to open until this expires because we do not want to be enticing people out when basically the strong recommendation is for people to quarantine for 14 days. So, the additional delay in their opening came out of respect for the strong recommendation to quarantine in East Lansing for MSU students,” Vail said.

The quarantine recommendation expired on Sept. 26, but Harper’s will be expected to submit reopening plans to the health department before the bar can welcome back customers.

“They’re coming close I believe to doing that, but they chose to stay closed for the period that they did on their own,” Vail said.

While some people might be concerned about an uptick in cases if more bars reopen or capacities are increased, Vail said the precautions in place are there for a reason, and businesses will still be expected to follow them.

“They learned a hard lesson and I expect them to be extraordinarily cautious,” she said adding, “Just like any other bar and restaurant if we get complaints, if we have to deal with issues we will, but I know from all I can tell and all accounts that I have in terms of my interactions with the owners since the close down is that their intent is to do the right thing, be as careful as possible. They certainly do not want anything like what happened back in June happening again.”

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