Positive Cases From Chatham Party Now Up To 13

By: Tim Wood

COVID-19

Pop-up Testing Clinics Planned In Chatham And Harwich; Several Local Restaurants Close

This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. July 24.

CHATHAM –State officials have updated the number of positive cases of COVID-19 stemming from a July 12 party in Chatham to 13.

A pop-up testing clinic will held Monday in Chatham to test anyone who was at the party or has been in close contact with someone who was there. Harwich announced Friday it would also hold a testing clinic next week after three residents who were at the party tested positive for COVID-19.

The Chatham clinic will be held in the parking lot of the town hall annex at 261 George Ryder Rd. July 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in cooperation with the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment and Cape Cod Healthcare. The clinic is open to anyone who was at the party or has been in close contact with someone who attended. Pre-registration is required by calling the health department at 508-945-5165 Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Many of those who were at the party reportedly work in the local food industry, and none, apparently, were wearing masks.

One of those testing positive is a Chatham resident, according to Director of Health and Natural Resources Dr. Robert Duncanson.  Three others were Harwich residents, prompting the town to set up a testing clinic next week.  A date and time have not yet been announced. It was not clear if the three Harwich cases were among the original 10 positive cases announced earlier this week, or if they were the three new cases announced Friday.

After the town was notified of the cluster of COVID-19 cases by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Health Agent Judith Giorgio sent an email to all restaurant owners in town urging them to talk with their employees to determine if any attended the party and did not take social distancing precautions. If an employee was exposed at the party, they should not come to work, monitor their health for coronavirus symptoms and self-quarantine for 14 days. Any potential contacts from the party or sick employees should be reported to her immediately, she wrote.

Harwich Health Department Director Meggan Eldredge sent a similar email to restaurants in her town. Employees of the Port Restaurant, Embers and J Bar in Harwich Port tested positive for the virus and the establishments closed for cleaning in accordance with state and local protocols.

At least three Chatham restaurants have closed after an employee tested positive for the virus, but Duncanson said it was not clear if any of those people were at the party.

"We don't know specifically that they are in fact connected to the cluster," he said Wednesday.

Kreme N' Kone announced on its Facebook page Wednesday that it would be closing until further notice after one employee tested positive. The restaurant will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected and reopened when the health department says it is safe, according to the posting. The Talkative Pig also announced on Facebook that it was closing until July 27 after one of its "back of the house employees" tested positive. The restaurant will be deeply cleaned and employees self-quarantine as per Centers for Disease Control guidelines, according to the post. Knott's Landing also announced that due to the cluster, it was closing its dining room and will be doing take-out and patio dining only for the foreseeable future.

Duncanson also said that Del Mar Bar and Bistro was also closing, and one local hair salon also had an employee test positive.

On Monday, Hangar B announced that it was closing after an employee was exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19, but that exposure did not occur at the party in question, according to owner Tracy Shields. She said her employee was friends with a person who tested positive, and the employee tested negative in a quick response test but agreed to self-isolate for two weeks from the exposure. Another employee is also self-isolating as a precaution. That puts almost half her staff out of commission, Shields said. Hangar B was closed Monday and Tuesday in accordance with state guidelines for cleaning and to allow the rest of the staff to be tested. She said when the restaurant reopens, it will go back to take-out only for two weeks.

“We want to watch out for our staff, but also we want to do everything possible to avoid not being able to operate at all,” which could happen should other staff members test positive or a larger outbreak occurs, she said. “Two weeks is a good amount of time to let this play out.”

Duncanson said the DPH said between 30 and 50 people were at the July 12 house party. It was not known how many work in the food service industry or the street address of the party. “We're trying to get that” information from the DPH, Duncanson said. Chatham police received no reports or complaints about the party, according to a press release issued by the town Thursday afternoon.

The state knows the identity of the people who tested positive and contact tracing is being done by the Visiting Nurse Association in accordance with public health guidelines, Duncanson said. Privacy laws prohibit releasing the name of the Chatham resident involved, and the town does not have access to residency information for the others who tested positive, according to the press release.

“Hopefully this doesn't get much larger,” Duncanson told selectmen Tuesday.

“It's something we've all been very concerned about,” Duncanson added, referring to news reports from other parts of the country about COVID-19 clusters developing after parties, especially among young people. “These kinds of events are really problematic, and they are hitting home on the Cape. We've seen it elsewhere, but it can, in fact, happen here.”

“I think we have to remind everyone that this is really serious,” said Chairman of Selectmen Shareen Davis.

Davis notified residents of the cluster in a recorded phone call Thursday afternoon. 

"While this news is alarming it is unfortunately not surprising, as we have seen large gatherings where people not wearing masks and social distancing have resulted in a large number of cases across the country," she said, urging people to avoid gatherings, wear masks and wash their hands to prevent the spread of the virus.

People don't seem to have learned the lessons from similar incidents in other states, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said Tuesday. “Young people partying leads to COVID cases,” he said.

Duncanson said Tuesday that Chatham's official COVID-19 count increased by one to 23 — 20 have cleared, three are still being monitored — and while the daily count of new cases in Barnstable County went above double digits for three or fours day, it was back to single digits Tuesday. “It was not unexpected,” he said, noting that officials were girding for an increase two weeks after the number of visitors to the Cape surged around the July 4 weekend.

“It's a little foreboding to see the changes in the numbers,” said Davis, a member of the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, “but not unexpected, with so many people around.”

Chatham has generally done a good job at keeping virus in check; the positive rate from tests is about 1.65 percent, Duncanson said, on the low end for the state. Social distancing and wearing masks when that is not possible are critical (the board of health has mandated masks downtown, at the lighthouse overlook and fish pier observation deck), and it's the responsibility of town leaders to reiterate that as much as possible, said Dykens.

“If you can't be socially distant out in public, wear a mask,” he said.

While some towns have had issues with gatherings on public beaches, that hasn't been a problem here, Duncanson said. There's little that can be done about groups on private property.

“We don't necessarily know about it until somebody complains to the police,” he said. State guidelines exempt unenclosed outdoor spaces like backyards from gathering size limits, and face covering orders only apply to public spaces. Barnstable County is working on public service announcements geared toward the younger demographic who might not necessarily get information from a town website, but could be reached through Instagram or other social media platforms, he said.

The low numbers in the state may be deceptive if out-of-state visitors who test positive are not being counted, said resident Elaine Gibbs. She questioned how many of the partygoers lived out of state. “How many people did they infect?” she said.

“Massachusetts can't be lulled into complacency thinking it's doing a great job when it's a tourist place,” she said. “I think there's a huge demographic that's being missed in Massachusetts and other states.”

When a person tests positive in Massachusetts, the DPH notifies the health department in their hometown, not necessarily the town where they are staying at the time.