When Crosslake's Moonlite Bay Family Restaurant and Bar appeared on a list of state establishments connected to suspected COVID-19 outbreaks from June 1 to early to mid July, owner Jessica Eide didn't feel like it painted the whole picture.
“I feel that it is shortsighted of the health department to publish a list naming where they believe transmission occurred,” Eide said.
The Minnesota Department of Health had released a list of 19 establishments statewide that officials identified through contact tracing as, they believe, sources of outbreaks. MDH said the 17 cases connected to Moonlite Bay were not connected to staff, and were patron to patron transmissions. The outbreak cited is approximately a month old, having been linked to positive tests between June 1 and early to mid July.
“For COVID-19, we are using a threshold of seven cases that mentioned only one establishment,” said Julie Bartkey, with MDH media relations support. “So if we have 10 cases and nine of them visited multiple establishments, even if all 10 visited Establishment A, we don't consider that to meet the threshold of calling it an outbreak (and releasing the establishment's name publicly).”
By comparison, foodborne illnesses only require two cases for MDH to investigate for an outbreak, even if those two people have been to multiple locations and only have one location in common.
Of Moonlite Bay's 17 reported cases, Bartkey said 10 met the requirement of having only visited Moonlite Bay. When the list, published by bringmethenews.com, started circulating through social media, Eide was upset. Not only is she uncertain that tracing can link outbreaks to a specific time or place with that degree of certainty, she said it gives the impression that the restaurants on the list have done something wrong. The identified cases were not connected to Moonlite Bay staff, and Eide said they are doing everything they can to ensure their business is safe.
“We sanitize everything,” Eide said. “We do touch points way more frequently now. All our tables are socially distanced. All my staff are wearing masks to protect themselves and customers. We're doing everything that we can.”
Eide believes there are too many private get-togethers and outside events to conclusively link COVID-19 cases to a specific business. On July 4, for example, she said there was aerial footage of more than 100 boats parked on a sandbar on Cross Lake with their occupants mingling in the water. Similarly, those people were likely sharing cabins with friends and families, she said, and attending bonfires and generally congregating together in settings where they were unlikely to observe MDH guidelines.
There are some mixed messages going around, as Eide said she was told by an MDH representative as well as someone who had been interviewed for contact tracing that they don't ask questions about social gatherings outside of businesses. Eide said it almost felt like restaurants were being villainized and considered it unfair that they aren't looking at private social gatherings as outbreak sources.
“Their contact tracing, as I was told by a representative, does not ask or include how many people were staying at the same cabin. Whether they went to any private bonfires or barbecues or parties. Whether they were hanging out on the sandbar,” Eide said. “I don't think they have enough information to know to print a list like this and publish it. Unless they ask these questions, they don't have enough information to say that.”
Bartkey said that information is inaccurate and the MDH does account for more than just business gatherings. For instance, they ask those who have tested positive who they had been in contact with for more than 15 minutes and where.
“We look at the case interviews in detail to make sure they don’t have anything else in common,” Bartkey said. “For example, if the cases all mentioned something else in common (e.g., they are all family members, or they all attended the same event, etc.), we don’t conclude that transmission happened at the bar/restaurant.”
It is unknown why Eide was given different information than that Bartkey provided, or who provided that information. Eide said she can only respond to what she was told.
Eide also thinks the timing of the virus should make it very difficult to conclusively pinpoint a source of an outbreak.
“If you're telling me that symptoms occur three to 14 days after transmission, I don't know how they are putting that all together to pinpoint it,” Eide said.
In spite of the disagreements on contact tracing, Eide said she's still determined to work with the MDH to keep everyone safe.
“I need to work closely with the Department of Health right now in everything I'm doing,” Eide said. “We're cleaning and sanitizing and wearing masks. Our tables are distanced. We are following everything and keeping customers informed. I want to be able to work with them if there are changes and things we need to do.”
Eide said in spite of being on the outbreak list, her customers have been supportive.
“We have great customers. I have great staff. My staff is doing everything they can to ensure their safety and safety of everyone around them,” Eide said.
She also pointed out that the information on the list is a month old by this point, and Bartkey confirmed that it is the most updated data pertaining to local establishments so far.
Bartkey said the MDH has a policy against discussing most specific information pertaining to positive cases and tracing and will mostly only speak to generalities about the contact tracing process rather than specific cases. There are few exceptions to that rule, specifically involving some statistics and data collected through tracing such as pertaining to age. After people have tested positive, case investigators contact them and conduct interviews in an attempt to determine how it happened. Bartkey said the youngest of these 17 people interviewed was age 18, and the oldest was 66. The average age was 25.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.