NEW BEDFORD — More than 300 folks had summer fun listening to FUN-107’s Gazelle deejaying at Greasy Luck on July 10. But by July 20, the word was out on social media that a COVID-19 cluster had been the consequence of that night for at least five folks at the popular downtown New Bedford night spot, recently renamed The Vault Music Hall & Pub.
The state’s Contract Tracing Collaborative informed the city Health Department of the cluster earlier this week. The city does not know how many additional people — families and friends — of the five cases traced to The Vault — will be ultimately confirmed, but both the city and The Vault owners say the CTC has told them there are already some additional cases. It is also not known if any of the five confirmed cases involved people who have become seriously ill.
The city issued a statement saying the number of confirmed cases “may” grow but that seems like understatement, given how quickly the latest dominant variant of COVID-19, the so-called delta variant, is said to spread. It’s safe to say these numbers traced to the downtown club will at least grow somewhat.
The five confirmed cases were traced to four separate groups within the club that night, including one member of an 11-person bachelorette party.
Howard Mallowes, one of The Vault’s co-owners, said the establishment at 791 Purchase St. did not learn about the cluster until July 20, some 10 days after the event. That same night they performed a cleaning of the music hall and adjacent pub with a fog machine that sprays a fine disinfectant mist over everything in the establishment.
“When we find out there was an outbreak with staff, we always clean,” Mallowes said, explaining the deep cleaning goes beyond the normal daily cleanup.
In this case, none of the 42 people who work at the night spot became sick as a result of the event, contrary to a complaint lodged with the City of New Bedford, he said.
It’s good to know the owners of The Vault are taking the situation seriously.
COVID-19 clusters can grow exponentially, as was seen this week when a Provincetown cluster that on July 16 consisted of 132 cases had nearly doubled four days later to 256 cases. The town issued an indoor mask advisory on Monday.
The state’s strict COVID directives ended on May 23, so The Vault for the present does not plan to close down. And Mallowes emphasized that the spreader event was now almost 12 days ago.
This seems like evidence, however, that New Bedford should focus on venues that bring large numbers of people together in an indoor setting.
The city continues to have one of the lowest rates of fully vaccinated residents in Massachusetts — just 41% vs. 63% statewide for the week ending July 17. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the delta variant does not pose a risk of serious illness to those who have been vaccinated in the vast majority of cases.
Even amid a concerted effort to reach more residents over the last several weeks, the city has increased its percentage of fully vaccinated by just 2%, although that represents about 2,000 people.
Both Mallowes and the city acknowledged the number of COVID-19 cases connected to The Vault might grow higher as the state expands its contact tracing connected to the site. It takes several days after an infection for someone to come down with COVID-19, and often several days after that to trace contacts.
“It could grow to more than (five) because now that they have the names of everyone, they’re calling them,” said Mallowes.
That’s right. The Vault was able to give the Contract Tracing Collaborative names, addresses and dates of birth for all 325 or so people who partied to the DJ on July 10.
The music hall, Mallowes said, has an innovative way of keeping track of its customers. In order to drink, you have to have an ID, so the club scans the IDs and then has a record of its patrons’ names, addresses and dates-of-birth. They can also tell whether the ID was fake or not through the scanner.
It’s a good thing they can track customers, because Mallowes says their lawyers advise that they cannot ask the hundreds of folks coming through the doors on a performance night whether or not they have been vaccinated. Because the government has not issued a vaccine mandate, it is seen as an invasion of privacy. With the scanned IDs, however, the CTC can better perform its contact tracing.
The news about The Vault comes amid recent national headlines that the U.S. is experiencing a renewed surge in novel coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant and the fact that the majority of residents of some states have not yet been vaccinated.
The people who are becoming sick from the variant, which now accounts for 90% of the cases in the U.S., are overwhelmingly those who are not vaccinated, according to the CDC. Research is inconclusive so far as to whether the variant makes people any sicker than previous manifestations of the disease, but hospitals in the South and Midwest have reported a surge in cases.
On Thursday, the old sign for Greasy Luck still hung over the front entrance of the pub, the company not yet having installed a new one. But the bartenders and wait staff at the pub are already wearing T-shirts with the new name, and the company is anxious for the rebrand. It somehow seemed like a metaphor for a country that wants to go back to enjoying large indoor gatherings but is not quite there yet.
Late in the day Wednesday, Mayor Jon Mitchell’s office released a written statement to The Light on behalf of Health Department Director Damon Chaplin, outlining the situation.
Chaplin said a complaint to the New Bedford Health Department, separate from the CTC tracing, contended that a member of the Vault staff had also tested positive, but after inspectors visited the establishment, the owners denied that was the case. Only one employee has been out sick over the last 10 days, and that person had not yet started on July 10, Mallowes said.
You might think that given the spread of the variant and the city’s comparatively low vaccination rate, New Bedford might be considering reinstating some health directives for commercial establishments. But it appears New Bedford is going to take a more targeted approach this time.
Chaplin’s statement suggested that even if cases begin to escalate again, the response can be less intrusive this round.
“While much is still unknown about the delta variant, our increased knowledge about COVID-19 disease and the resulting clinical and public health advances, all suggest that the city’s response can be more tailored than in previous periods of the pandemic,” the statement read.
That seems to be the only way to go.
It’s not clear that either New Bedford or the country would easily accept another strong mask advisory for commercial establishments.
But if the vaccination rate in the city does not catch up with the delta variant spread, the question is whether the health-care system will be able to keep up with a growing number of cases. And whether residents will not be deeply traumatized if hospitalizations and the death rate should climb again.
The cluster at The Vault seems to have been handled well all around. But if it is the first of many such events, it will not be an easy climb-down for the city.
State police say an EMT and paramedic on the scene the night of the accidents described it as “obvious” that he had been drinking and that they smelled alcohol on his breath.
As people get ready for a big summer of art and music, the city continues to lag behind most of the state in the number of folks who are vaccinated.
The number of fully vaccinated Hispanics in New Bedford is just 24%, compared to 40% of whites, 36% of Blacks and 17% of people who identify as multiracial.
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