Park City partiers shunned masks at an indoor gathering. Two weeks later, there were 54 new cases of COVID-19 in Summit County.
Near the end of the first week of August, an unknown number of people went to a party in Park City. The party apparently lasted several hours and people came and went, according to health officials, perhaps pursuing a celebratory mood that has for many been elusive since the onset of the pandemic in late winter.
But two weeks later, many of those partygoers became statistics, as the Summit County Health Department attributed a spike in COVID-19 cases — some 54 between Aug. 16 and Aug. 19 — primarily to that party, which officials say was held inside a business and where masks were apparently not commonly worn.
That spike is the largest since the early days of the pandemic. Wednesday alone saw 22 new cases, the most since April 5.
Rich Bullough, the county’s health director, said the team investigating the party has received little cooperation from its attendees, a frustrating development that prevents the department from doing the contact tracing work it says is necessary to effectively fight the coronavirus outbreak.
“The only way for us to control this stuff and keep businesses open and stay in the phase we’re in is for us to be able to track specific cases,” Bullough said in an interview Friday. “If people don’t participate, it may force us to use a broad brush. Those broad brushes are as extreme as stay-at-home orders (or) closing businesses.”
Bullough’s comments came as at least five local restaurants have temporarily shut down or altered services in the last week after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Bullough lauded the business community’s response to the county’s pandemic-fighting efforts as a whole, saying the Health Department had not been forced to shut down any business and that the business closures to date have been voluntary.
But he said the department retains the ability to enforce the county’s health orders and is working with the County Attorney’s Office to determine what sort of punishment, if any, might be bestowed on the organizer of the party that caused the recent surge and the business where it was held.
“If we know that there has been an event, an egregious violation of the mask order, then we can look at taking action, both at the facility and the organizer of the party,” he said. “We’re not at that point yet.”
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said he anticipated the county’s mask mandate will remain in place until a meaningful number of county residents are vaccinated against COVID-19.
A draft health order expected to be considered by the Summit County Council Aug. 26 extends the mandate until Jan. 8, a date Bullough said was chosen for the logistical benefit of getting through the holidays.
“I don’t see this going away until we have vaccination rates (high enough),” he said.
The order also mandates masks in schools, largely mirroring an order from Gov. Gary Herbert, and clarifies some exceptions.
There is not currently a vaccine against COVID-19, and it remains unclear when one will become widely available.
Bullough declined to release the name of the establishment where the party occurred, offering that it was hosted by an individual but held indoors at a business within the Park City limits and that attendees came and went apparently over the course of several hours.
He said the Health Department was receiving contradictory reports from attendees.
“We are being told numbers (of attendees) that, frankly, I don’t believe. We’re seeing too many cases come from this,” he said.
He said initial evidence indicates that someone infected with COVID-19 was at the party for a long time and spread it to many people who came and went. He added that there wasn’t evidence that it was an “anti-mask” party or that flouting the county’s mask mandate was a purpose for the gathering. It was a celebration, he said, and some attendees did wear masks.
He said the responsibility for ensuring that people wore masks at the party was borne by both the organizer and the business where it was held, but that the unfortunate truth is that it often falls to low-level workers to police gatherings like this one.
“That’s one of the worst realities of mask orders. We’ve got individuals who are eking out a living and they’re being put on the front lines of this,” he said.
He praised the local businesses that have voluntarily shut down for deep cleanings or for longer durations after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Such businesses include the restaurants Hearth and Hill, Five5eeds, Luna’s Kitchen, Yuki Yama and the Boneyard Saloon and Wine Dive, according to posts on each of their respective Facebook pages.
Bullough said that a positive test does not necessitate that a business close for any specific period of time, though the required deep cleaning may take one or two full days. But each employee who has direct contact with a person who has been confirmed to have COVID-19 must quarantine for 14 days from the last exposure to that known positive case, and many small businesses do not have a roster of employees that can be called upon to pick up the slack in such a situation.
Bullough has stressed the necessity of reopening local businesses for the health and welfare of the community and thanked the business community for understanding the importance of the county’s health orders. He said that’s what makes parties like the one in early August so frustrating.
“What was upsetting was not the increase of cases, it was the fact that we had a group of people acting very irresponsibly that didn’t consider the businesses, did not consider the schools, did not consider the community. We need to understand there’s a consequence to this and if we’re irresponsible, other people are going to pay for this.”
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