UPDATE Sept. 17, 2020: The case count resulting from the rural Maine wedding, described in this editorial, stands at 175 as of Sept. 16. Seven deaths are now attributed to cases that resulted from the superspreader event.
“A rural wedding led to dozens of coronavirus cases. Officials see it as a cautionary tale.”
So read the headline to an article published in The Washington Post on Sunday, detailing the tragic aftermath of a wedding that took place on Aug. 7, just outside the bucolic small town of Millinocket, Maine.
The wedding happened at a campground venue with a lodge where guests could spend the night, and the 67-person guest list overtopped the state’s restrictions on gatherings numbering more than 50 people. A witness observed that social distancing and masks weren’t much in evidence at the festivities.
The town had no COVID-19 infections prior to the event, but it does now: more than 87 cases have been tied to the wedding, including outbreaks at a jail and nursing home more than 200 miles away. One infection proved fatal for a woman who was not at the event but had contact with someone who was.
The article read like a horror story because it could all easily happen in another sweet, rural wedding destination with a low rate of infections: Vashon Island.
In the past month, The Beachcomber has learned of at least three recent weddings that have taken place on Vashon that seemed, in one way or another, to violate either the state’s current total ban on wedding receptions or its restrictions on social gatherings of more than five people in Stage Two counties.
One of the weddings — which was first reported briefly in an Emergency Operations Center situation report — took place at a venue where, like the one in Maine, guests could spend the night. And although the actual wedding took place according to the current rules, which allow only thirty wedding guests and ban receptions, an after-party at the venue was another matter.
Somehow, a band snuck out of the woodwork after the venue manager left for dinner — violating the state’s ban on live entertainment. The group played for about 30 minutes before the manager rushed back to pull the plug.
The Beachcomber knows all this because we talked to the owner of the venue, and also, to an islander who lives nearby the place. This person heard loud music and biked over to see what was going on. He said he had observed a large group of unmasked people dancing closely together to recorded music, as the band packed up to leave.
The owner of the venue, with admirable transparency, expressed disappointment that the guests had broken the rules, which she said were clearly communicated to the wedding party.
So what is a small-town newspaper, with only two beleaguered part-time reporters, to do?
We followed up with the King County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Ryan Abbott, who told us officers are not enforcing coronavirus restrictions violations, but rather, “taking an educational approach” and re-directing those who complain to contact King County Public Health. The sheriff’s office will assist Public Health if requested, he said.
We checked in with Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center, which has also posted that islanders can report suspected violations by calling a King County COVID-19 information line at 206-296-1608, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Those who suspect violations can also email firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out a form at coronavirus.wa.gov/report-safe-start-violations.
We called a local wedding caterer, who spoke frankly about the devastation of his business in the past year.
We left a voicemail and emailed a long list of questions to the owner of another local wedding venue, who never got back to us.
We reached out to the Governor’s press office, where a spokesman told us that the post-wedding party — if it occurred as our source described — would have been a violation of the state’s restrictions on social gatherings of more than five people. He also emailed us a news story, dating back to April, that described how Chelan County had shut down campgrounds, vacation rentals and Airbnbs to all but essential workers.
April was a long time ago.
That was then, and this is now.
This dreadful year drones on and on with disappointments — everything from canceled birthday parties to shuttered theaters, to businesses on the brink of failure because of huge drops in revenue. For the past several weeks, we’ve been busy covering the complex and, at its core, deeply sad story of how online school must continue in our district this fall.
We haven’t opted — yet — to write news stories about weddings, or parties going on back in the woods, or even a low-key car rally that we know took place on Vashon a couple of weeks ago. We haven’t named names.
We’re writing this editorial instead, begging our readers, once again, to behave responsibly and for the common good during this seemingly never-ending public health crisis. We must all continue to pivot, adjust, wait, endure.
As long as we are asking our kids to collectively endure the disappointment of heading back to their Chromebooks instead of the classroom this week, we should also expect grownups to forego late summer parties until this virus is under control.
Because God help us if we have to write a Beachcomber headline like the one we just saw in The Washington Post.