Young people, bars and the coronavirus. What did we expect?

by | Jun 28, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

And then the doors open.

You can plan all you want, test all you want, inform and educate your staff all you want, but customers are another matter, and young customers another matter altogether. The coronavirus that keeps tripping up our country grows almost giddy at the sight of college-aged kids swarming a bar or restaurant. Ready, set, outbreak!

Trisha Riley thought she had prepared. She, her husband, Pat, and two of their children operate Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub in East Lansing, a popular 10,000-square-foot indoor restaurant with a large outdoor deck.

“We did a whole day of training, we had every staff person come in, they got all the guides from the state and local governments, we let everybody ask questions, and we had them all wear their masks,” Riley told me Friday. “We actually gave them masks to go home with to get used to it.”

And then the doors opened. June 8th. Not surprisingly, the crowds were large. Riley and her staff kept the place at below half-capacity, which means around 225 people.

But on the deck, they noticed customers moving tables together on their own. And outside the restaurant, people in line were ignoring markers to maintain 6-foot distances — and most were not wearing masks.

“It was a full-time job of trying to monitor (the line) to keep people 6 feet apart,” Riley recalled. “The most difficult part was they know we don’t own the sidewalk. You get a lot people saying, ‘That’s great, but this is not your property.’ “

Not surprisingly, reports began to circulate of a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests coming from customers who’d been at Harper’s since it reopened. That number, originally reported as 14, had risen to 76 as of Friday, according to Ingham County health officials, as people continue to spread the virus from one to another.

Two weeks after Harper’s opened, it closed back down.

We are the carriers

Now, let’s say it right off the bat, this is not Harper’s fault. I spoke with Riley for some time, and it’s hard to imagine a restaurant doing more to prepare for operation during the COVID-19 crisis.

Since closing, the steps they are taking are even more vigilant. These include: investing in a new air filtration system; investing in a “virtual” line technology (to negate the sidewalk crowds); paying for all their employees to be tested, multiple times; screening all employees upon entering the building; bolting the deck tables to the ground at 7 feet apart; demanding masks on every employee; making all restrooms touchless, including hand-dryers, faucets and toilets; closing two days a week to do extensive deep cleaning and sanitizing; eliminating barstools; using only plastic utensils, plastic glassware, and disposable menus.

Honestly, it’s like setting up shop in a biohazard bubble. And all this has to be done with far less revenue than they used to bring in.

The sad part is, it may not make a difference.

Because this disease spreads from person to person, not plate to plate. We are the carriers. We are “the way you get it.” And therefore, our behavior is what determines its transmission.

If we keep ignoring warnings, we’ll keep getting sick. That’s especially true for a certain age group. You know how young people often want to race out front and lead the way?

When it comes to spreading coronavirus, they are.

Young and restless

I have often warned that the biggest danger in this pandemic would be our impatience. Who has less patience than young people who want to party, visit, hang out? The vast majority of the Harper’s-connected cases are aged 16 to 28. Buoyed by a belief that they can’t be harmed — and often carrying the disease while they are asymptomatic — young people are increasingly responsible for the surge of cases in this country and elsewhere, bringing daily totals to alarming new levels.

In New Orleans, recent data shows 50% of new cases are in people under 30. In Florida, the new median age for people testing positive is 35, which is down from 65 just three months ago. In California, a surge in young people testing positive prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to tell the media, “You’re young so you feel … invincible, but, respectfully … that can be a selfish mindset.”

He’s right. Because while youth may decrease your odds of dying from this virus, it does nothing to lower your chance of spreading it. And spreading it to someone more vulnerable — an older person, or someone with some underlying health issues — endangers lives.

Meanwhile, the burden falls unfairly on places like Harper’s, which, quite frankly, shouldn’t have to go through this many hoops just to serve customers who can ignore the guidelines anyhow.

Let’s be honest. It was a risky idea to reopen bars. They’re largely indoor facilities, often cramped, with loud music that makes people yell, and drinking and eating which renders masks untenable. Bars should have been the absolute last places to reopen. How is it that you still can’t go to a library or a movie theater in Michigan — where no one talks and social distancing is easy — but bars are open for business?

Behavioral transmission

Meanwhile, what happened at Harper’s should make the folks who run Michigan State University extremely nervous. And colleges everywhere should be taking note. They can plan all they want for distanced seating in classrooms, online learning, Zoom video conferences. But how on earth will they keep kids from partying at night, from hanging out in bars, restaurants or each other’s dorm rooms, sharing cups of beer, passing joints (it’s legal now) or having sex?

College sports like football, with as many as 100 players and staff, are kidding themselves if they think athletes will abstain from contact outside of the team. We’ve already seen some big COVID-19 numbers from major college football programs — and the campuses aren’t even open yet.

The word “surge” was supposed to come in the fall, when scientists anticipated a rise in coronavirus along with the flu. But we are surging right now, in early summer, the hot season which was supposed to provide relief.

We’re doing so simply because of how we behave. We’ve been warned. We’ve been told of the danger. But anxious to break loose, we let our guards down anyhow. Why? Are we that short on memory?

As Newsom suggested, it’s one thing to develop cabin fever, it’s another to develop amnesia.

And then the doors open. Listen: We all want the word “return” to mean “the way we were,” but there is no “way we were” until the virus is tamed — by vaccine and medication.

Until then, if we keep pushing the issue, we will have more clusters, more outbreaks, more spread and more death. Look no further than Texas and Florida, two states previously boastful about their quick reopenings. Both re-shuttered their bars on Friday, with Florida’s governor admitting, “There was widespread noncompliance.”

And widespread noncompliance leads to widespread infection.

It’s a simple equation. But until we learn it, until we take it to heart, another simple equation will likely define our coming months.

The doors open.

The doors close.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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