The health ramifications of a wedding held near Millinocket, Maine, on Aug. 7 launched the state’s widest-ranging coronavirus outbreak to date, leaving one person dead and precipitating case clusters in a rehabilitation center and in a jail.
As of Thursday, health officials had linked 87 cases of COVID-19 to the reception held at the Big Moose Inn, located on unorganized territory on Millinocket Lake, approximately 80 miles north of Bangor, according to a state health inspector’s report reviewed by The Bangor Daily News.
Thirty wedding guests have confirmed cases of the virus, and 35 more people fell ill after having direct contact with attendees. An additional 22 people contracted it either through direct or indirect exposure to that second wave, the newspaper reports.
Included in those cases is one woman who did not attend the wedding but died after catching the virus, officials have said.
The Portland Press Herald reports cases have been traced to the Maplecrest Rehabilitation Center in Madison and the York County Jail in Alfred, where six and 18 cases, respectively, had been recorded as of Tuesday.
“Our hearts go out to the family, those affected by the virus who were at the wedding, and those who have been impacted since then,” Laurie Cormier, the inn’s owner, said in a lengthy statement Friday — the venue’s first public comment since the event. “There is no doubt that this virus is dangerous with wide-ranging impacts. We too are deeply saddened and frustrated by the many devastating impacts of COVID-19. This is a challenging time for all of us.”
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said a staff member at the nursing home became sick from a close contact of a wedding guest and a jail employee attended the reception, sparking the outbreaks at each facility.
“COVID-19 can be the uninvited guest at every single wedding, party or event in Maine,” Shah said. “These recent examples show how aggressive and how opportunistic this virus is and how quickly it can move from one community to another.”
Here’s what we’ve learned about the wedding, and the subsequent outbreak:
Guest temperatures were taken upon arrival, but attendees didn’t wear masks or social distance, report says.
When wedding guests flocked to the inn, they had their temperatures taken at the door, the Daily News reports. They didn’t have fevers.
Some attendees even brought proof they tested negative for the coronavirus when they traveled in from out of state, the health inspector’s report said. And staff at the Big Moose Inn wore masks. Signage encouraged party guests to mask-up, too.
But many did not wear any sort of face covering, nor did they try to social distance, according to the newspaper. And no one tried to stop them, the inspector noted.
Inside the inn, 10 tables that had four to six chairs each were spaced less than six feet apart, in violation of state requirements. While regulations also cap gatherings at 50 people, 62 people attended the wedding reception, not including other people at the venue who were not part of the party.
In total, there were between 104 and 109 guests seated around the inn, the health inspector wrote. There should have only been 80 — the limit set under the facility’s state license.
According to the Daily News, while state requirements mandate certain businesses collect guest information for contact tracing purposes, the inn did not for the reception.
Contact tracing typically focuses on people who spent at least 15 minutes with an infected individual within a distance of six feet or less, the Press Herald reports.
Rick Zaker, a high school teacher from Hudson, New Hampshire, who was staying at the inn that weekend, said he left his contact information and was told he would be called if there was an outbreak, according to the news outlet.
“My wife and I didn’t get sick, we’re fortunate,” he told the newspaper. “But what about all these other people who got sick because (the inn’s managers) were irresponsible and marginalized the risk involved?”
Zaker, who watched the wedding guests while he ate dinner at the inn’s bar and grill, said the reception was “very crowded,” adding that he saw “maybe one or two people wearing a mask.”
“It seems like they were pretty irresponsible,” he said. “They played fast and loose with a lot of people’s safety.”
The inn’s state license was temporarily suspended after it did not comply with regulations during a follow-up inspection.
The inn was initially issued an imminent health hazard citation from the Maine CDC, essentially recording the venue violated at least one state regulation and asking for the business to comply with the rules.
But a follow-up inspection showed dining room tables were still less than six feet apart. Employees were not wearing masks or enforcing social distancing, the Daily News reports.
As a result, the state temporarily suspended the inn’s license Wednesday.
”We did last week issue what’s called an imminent health hazard because of what we know was a violation of our policies,” state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew told WABI this week. “There was a return site-visit in which there were continued deficiencies so we have suspended the license for the Big Moose Inn.”
The license was reinstated Friday, WGME reports.
Cormier, in her statement shared by WAGM, said part of what contributed to the number of people on the property was a misinterpretation of the state’s rule:
“We understood that there could be no more than 50 persons in our largest room. We did make an error in the interpretation of that rule. Our interpretation was that we could take a wedding party of more than 50 persons, and split them between two rooms as long as it didn’t exceed our total capacity or a specific room’s capacity. The State — perhaps, rightfully so — assumes that individuals from a larger group would ignore the room restrictions, and take the opportunity to co-mingle. Our interpretation of the rule put the Big Moose Inn in violation of the gathering of people over the maximum number allowed by Maine DECD guidelines.”
Cormier said the inn “has worked hard to follow all of the rules to the best of our understanding since we opened for the season” and has signage informing visitors to wear masks, has required staff wear masks, and has increased sanitizing and safety measures, among other actions the venue has taken.
The Maine CDC took the helm of contact tracing once the inn was notified of the outbreak, she said. None of the inn’s servers working that weekend have tested positive, Cormier added.
The inn’s license was suspended because of violations found in the dining area, which has been closed to customers for several weeks, she said.
“We quickly corrected the violations as though we were open, and our license was reinstated earlier today,” Cormier said.
State officials are still mulling over whether any actions will be taken against Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket, which hosted the wedding ceremony, or the couple who hosted the festivities, according to the Daily News.
Cormier, on Friday, said the inn had not previously commented out of respect for the wedding party and family, as well as the state investigation.
“But with so many questions and assumptions being put forth, we felt that we needed to respond,” she said.
The inn, Cormier added, is a family-owned business and has taken the pandemic seriously and has “gone above and beyond” state rules to keep staff, guests, and the community safe:
“While we cannot be sure the virus was fully spread at our facility, we know that there are things that we can be doing better. We have given the Maine CDC our word, and we are giving our community and guests that same word that we will do — and are doing — better. We are updating our protocols as advised by the Maine CDC and will continue to keep our staff, community, and guests’ health and safety as our top priority.”
The local hospital has ramped up testing, while nearby schools have delayed their first days of classes.
In Millinocket, coronavirus cases were nonexistent for most of the pandemic.
However, as of Aug. 23, the town had reported 23 virus-stricken residents, while nearby East Millinocket notched 19 cases and Medway had seen a total of 13, after experiencing a dozen cases earlier this year, according to the Daily News.
Following the wedding outbreak, stores and businesses in Millinocket have closed their doors amid concerns COVID-19 is on the move in the area.
Schools in Millinocket, East Millinocket, and Medway have all delayed their first day of school by two weeks, too.
Six East Millinocket school staffers and two students have tested positive for the coronavirus, including a staff member who was hired as a musician at the wedding, Superintendent Eric Steeves, who also tested positive for the virus, told the Daily News.
Other school employees who attended the wedding have been tested and have quarantined, Steeves said. It was unclear how the students became sick.
At Millinocket Regional Hospital, health care providers have quadrupled the average number of virus tests they are conducting daily, up to about 100, officials told the newspaper this week.
The hospital, a 25-bed facility, has faced the financial burdens that have plagued rural hospitals across the country in recent years. Operational changes helped stabilize finances over the past year, along with the federal Paycheck Protection Program, CEO Robert Peterson told the Daily News.
While the hospital is in “no danger of closure or even bankruptcy,” the need to bulk up COVID-19 operations by delaying nonessential services for the time being does present a financial strain, he said.
With those services suspended, the hospital expects to lose half of its anticipated patient revenue, at minimum, Peterson said.
“This will have a significant impact on cash flow in the weeks to come,” he said. “We will manage, but it is an unenviable position to be placed in.”
Peterson told the newspaper Maine residents have become “complacent” with the safety measures because of the state’s relatively low positivity rate. But the recent events show that precautions to stem the spread of the virus are still necessary.
“What we are going through in the Katahdin region is a stark reminder that this pandemic is certainly not over and that this virus is extremely virulent and dangerous, he said. “Lapses in safety measures lead to dire consequences and we have been dealing with these consequences firsthand.”