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Suffolk officials: Miller Place Inn fined $12G; 37 connected to 'superspreader' event test positive

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Tuesday said The Miller Place Inn was hit with $12,000 in fines after 37 people connected to a Sweet 16 party at the venue last month tested positive for COVID-19. Credit: Zoom / Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

The Miller Place Inn has been hit with $12,000 in fines after 37 people connected to a Sweet 16 party at the venue last month tested positive for COVID-19, officials said Tuesday.

The party, which took place Sept. 25, had 81 guests, exceeding the state maximum of 50, officials said, noting not all attendees were wearing masks.

"We have not seen an event like this before at any time throughout this pandemic," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said during a video news conference. "For Suffolk County, this was a superspreader event."

So far, 28 young people, including students from several area high schools, and nine adults have tested positive for the coronavirus. Officials started contact tracing after the Suffolk County Department of Health received several positive COVID-19 cases throughout the Sachem school district.

The first positive case, reported on Sept. 30, was connected to the Sweet 16 party, which had 49 students and 32 adults in attendance. The entire guest list was quarantined, Bellone said. Investigators traced 334 contacts, of which 183 were affiliated with schools and 151 not affiliated with schools.

"As a result of this one event, 270 people were placed under quarantine, eight schools had positive cases and 35 schools had individuals placed under quarantine," Bellone said.

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He said quick action to identify COVID-19 cases and quarantine contacts prevented any further spread of the virus. "There is no community spread at this time," Bellone said.

Suffolk County Health Department officials said 29 of the positive cases attended the party, seven positive cases were household contacts, and one positive case was a close contact of an individual who attended the party.

The popular venue, known for hosting weddings and other elaborate functions, received a $10,000 fine for violations of New York State Executive Orders and of the Public Health Law, Bellone said. Its owners also received a $2,000 fine based on violations of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code, he said.

Co-owner and inn manager Christopher Regina said he and the other owners — two brothers and a sister — "understood we were operating under the guidelines set forth by the county and the state" and would answer the county summons in court on Nov. 12. He said he was unaware of the sanitary code fine.

States/regions in red are included on New York's travel advisory list as of Oct. 27, 2020. Guam and Puerto Rico, not pictured, are also on the list.

"My attorney will advise us what the next step is," Regina said. "We do not know if the infection was proved to be caused at our facility."

That attorney, Anthony Gallo of Hauppauge, said he still is investigating the facts of the case.

"They never had a violation, they never had a run-in with the law so to speak," Gallo said of the siblings. "They’re very honorable and hardworking people."

Tables at the party were spaced 10 feet apart, set for six to eight people, said Regina, following what he thought was the correct practice.

Informed that Bellone said the rule is 50 or fewer guests plus 50% or less capacity, Regina said, "We were not notified of that by the State Liquor Authority, the board of health or the fire marshal. So we thought we were operating within state guidelines."

Regina said he "prayed for anybody who’s sick and I wish them a speedy recovery. And anybody who’s affected by this virus by us being open, and anybody affected by the virus globally and nationally."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state officials have promised to crack down on catering halls and other establishments that do not follow COVID-19 regulations. State guidelines require social distancing and face coverings, to slow the spread of the virus.

Local law enforcement, as well as the New York State Liquor Authority and State Police Task Force, has been monitoring bars and restaurants to make sure they are complying with regulations. Offenders have received violations and in some cases had their liquor licenses suspended.

Sachem Superintendent Chris Pellettieri said last week that a "rapid increase" in positive cases at Sachem High School North in Lake Ronkonkoma was connected with a social event held the weekend of Sept. 25. Fifteen people at the high school tested positive within days after the party, he said. The school has been closed for in-person instruction since Oct. 1.

A contact tracing investigation found that "several hundred students and nearly two dozen staff members were considered proximate contacts for the individuals that tested positive and were required to quarantine," Pellettieri said.

Sachem High School North is scheduled to reopen Wednesday.

"This cluster should serve as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of violating COVID-19 rules and regulations," Bellone said. "We're not out of the woods yet, and we need everyone to remain vigilant. We do not want clusters here. We do not want to see businesses shutting down and schools shutting down as we have seen happening in New York City."

Regina said "we meant no danger to anyone at any time," adding that owners went beyond government requirements and spent more than $10,000 to install a MERV 13 air ventilation system to filter fine particulate matter and "bacteria-killing" UV LED lights.

The owners temporarily shuttered the venue on Thursday after a State Liquor Authority agent said the banquet hall would be closed if there were more than 50 total occupants, including employees, Regina said.

The legal capacity of the banquet hall is 250, and the business would lose money for any event in which there would be 50 or fewer people in the building, which would mean only "in the 30s of guests," he said.

Regina urged the state to lift the requirement that banquet hall gatherings be limited to 50 people or fewer. "Fifty percent is fair; 50 people is impossible," he said.

In addition, he said, "I wonder how many people are being infected right now" at large chain stores where "there are hundreds of people walking around."

Regina said COVID-19 has "caused a devastation to the banquet industry. All the banquet halls are suffering tremendously. We are suffering to put food on our tables. We are suffering to make payrolls with our staff."

With Catherine Carrera

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