Rumors started to circulate last week that a rash of Wellfleet restaurants had closed due to positive Covid-19 tests among staff.
According to public notices from restaurateurs, Mac’s Shack closed for 24 hours for a deep cleaning on July 30 after a staff member tested positive; the Fox & Crow shut down voluntarily for deep cleaning on July 30 and 31, though no staff tested positive; and Van Rensselaer’s closed for deep cleaning on July 31 and Aug. 1, without stating why. Mac’s and the Fox & Crow declined to comment for this article, and V.R.’s could not be reached before deadline.
(A July 27 article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic argued that “deep cleaning” to prevent Covid transmission is a waste of time. Calling the practice “hygiene theater,” he cited research evidence that surface transmission of the virus is exceedingly rare, and that news reports of studies showing the virus remaining alive on surfaces for days were wildly exaggerated.)
The Wellfleet closings followed others in Provincetown. According to public statements by George’s Pizza and Provincetown Brewing Co., each had a staff member test positive for the coronavirus.
To verify such statements and halt false rumors, is there any official way to find out which restaurants have had employees with the virus?
The answer is no. In Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham, local health officials are not naming restaurants with Covid cases. There is no state mandate for reporting. Emily Beebe, Truro’s health director, said on Tuesday that she was still pondering the question.
Elsewhere in the state, Quincy Mayor Tom Koch posts highly specific updates. On Aug. 3, he wrote: “An employee of Manet Lunch at 1099 Sea St. Quincy has tested positive for Covid-19. If you were a patron on 7/11/20 5PM-1AM, 7/12/20 12-5PM, 7/18/20 5PM-1AM or 7/19/20 12-5PM, please call Quincy Health Department at 617-376-1286 or 617-376-1272 so we may advise you regarding further actions.”
Morgan Clark, Provincetown’s director of health and environment, has no intention of naming restaurants because she does not want to “contribute to shaming,” she said. “This community should be more aware than most, given how we lived together in the 1980s,” she added, referring to the AIDS epidemic.
According to Mass. Dept. of Public Health epidemiologist Hillary Johnson, when and where a person worked may not be relevant. That is something contact tracers attempt to deduce.
“There is not a one-to-one correlation with work and infections,” Johnson told the Provincetown Select Board on Monday. That is, roommates, family, or a certain dinner party guest may need to be informed of positive test results, not a business where masks were worn.
Still, some are pushing for mandatory restaurant disclosures of positive tests among staff.
“Shining lights on the actual facts is the way to dispel the rumor mill,” said Louise Venden of the Provincetown Select Board. “I want to thank those who did disclose.”
Erik Borg, co-owner of the Provincetown Brewing Co., said it posted results on social media because “some story will get out there anyway, so why not get the real story?”
Provincetown Select Board member Lise King is advocating that the town list both the numbers of residents and workers employed in Provincetown who test positive. Particular businesses would not be named, said King, but it would give the public notice.
In Wellfleet, Mike DeVasto, chair of the select board, is pushing for full disclosure. “I feel strongly that restaurants should report if they have a case,” he said.
Beebe, Truro’s health agent, said naming the restaurant could motivate owners to focus on mask and hygiene requirements. But, she added, she doesn’t want to discourage businesses from communicating freely with her department.
In Wellfleet, Health Director Hillary Greenberg-Lemos said she depends on businesses to call her about positive tests, since there has been at least one significant lag in results going to the state.
Which Test Is Valid?
But testing itself presents a number of thorny questions. For one, which test is valid? The molecular test that’s covered by insurance at Outer Cape Health Services is the most reliable, but wait times for results have been a week or longer. (Quest Diagnostics claimed on Aug. 3 on its website that the wait time is now five days on average.)
Meanwhile, should a restaurant close, or should only a few employees stay home until results come in?
On his business website, Mac’s Shack owner Mac Hay stated that he learned on July 30 that an employee tested positive. “Following dept. of public health and local board of health directions and protocol, we closed for a deep cleaning and had staff tested,” the statement continued. “All tests came back negative. We believe the negative test results are a testament to following proper guidelines and mitigating risk whenever and wherever possible.” The tests were done at CareWell Urgent Care, with results back that same day for about $160 each.
Health agents, including Clark and Eastham’s Jane Crowley, said they don’t recommend the rapid tests, for which negative results are only about 70 percent accurate. Yet many businesses use the rapid tests anyway. “A lot of times, by the time they get to me, business owners have already gone to CareWell, spending almost $200 a test to do something I wouldn’t even recommend,” Clark said.
On the other hand, the week or longer lag in receiving molecular test results presents a huge problem for contact tracers and businesses. And there’s no easy solution, since Quest Diagnostics, which conducts the virus tests here, is backed up, due to high demand nationally and a lack of supplies, Clark said. Dr. Andrew Jorgensen, medical director of Outer Cape Health Services, said a shortage of plastic has made it difficult to get test pipettes.
Quest’s website says demand has “plateaued” and wait times on test results should decrease.
On July 31, the Provincetown Board of Health sent a letter to the Mass. Dept. of Public Health demanding 48-hour test results. Clark brings it up during every call to the DPH.
“We’re not going to stop talking about it until it is improved,” she said.