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Caution: Sweet 16 'superspreader' a COVID-19 red flag on indoor gatherings

With the holiday season just around the corner, Long Islanders have mixed reactions on how they will spend time with their family this year. Newsday's Steve Langford has the story. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware; Craig Ruttle; Kendall Rodriguez; Photo Credit: James Carbone

The Miller Place Sweet 16 party that Suffolk County officials said is linked to 37 coronavirus infections illustrates the consequences of not following prevention guidelines, especially as cooler weather is pushing more gatherings to higher-risk indoor settings, experts say.

Twenty-nine people who attended the Sept. 25 party at The Miller Place Inn tested positive for COVID-19, as did eight households and other close contacts of attendees, Suffolk officials said. Of those, 28 are minors and nine are adults.

"It serves as yet another warning," said Danielle Ompad, an associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health in Manhattan. "But it’s not like we haven’t had warnings all along that this would be an issue."

Those who contract the virus at an event can then unknowingly infect family members, friends and work colleagues, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside.

"All you need is one person to have had COVID at that event, even if they are asymptomatic, and they can easily spread it from person to person to person," he said.

He pointed to the "superspreader" wedding in Maine that resulted in at least 175 positive COVID-19 cases and seven deaths.

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Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone said the Sweet 16 party had its own ripple effect, with 270 people placed under quarantine — including from 35 schools — after county investigators traced 334 contacts of attendees. The extensive contact tracing prevented community spread, county officials reiterated Thursday.

Bellone termed the party a "superspreader event," the county’s worst COVID-19 outbreak tied to a single gathering.

Ompad said there is no agreed-upon definition on what constitutes a superspreader event, but in general it means a gathering that leads to a large number of COVID-19 cases.

"The next six months we’ll spend more time indoors, and you shouldn’t be spending time indoors in a large gathering of people who are not in your household, without a mask and not socially distancing," she said.

That includes holiday gatherings, she said. If you do attend a gathering, there should be no more than 10 people and you should wear masks and practice social distancing with anyone you don’t live with, she said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top infectious-disease expert, said recently he worries there could be a spike in coronavirus cases after Thanksgiving.

The Miller Place party isn’t the only source of a local outbreak. Long Island University Post in Brookville announced Wednesday it was moving to all-remote instruction for two weeks after 33 new COVID-19 cases had emerged since Oct. 10. University officials said the outbreak stemmed from off-campus parties.

State regulations place a 50-person limit for parties, weddings and other large gatherings. The Sweet 16 party had 81 guests, Bellone said.

The county fined the venue $10,000 for alleged violations of state executive orders and the public health law, and $2,000 for alleged sanitary-code violations, he said.

A Nov. 12 hearing is scheduled with a county health department administrative officer, although the owners can pay the fine in lieu of attending it, Suffolk health department officials said.

Anthony Gallo, an attorney for the owners, said he is still investigating the facts of the case.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, often critical of what he views as a lack of local enforcement of COVID-19 rules, praised Bellone Wednesday for the fines.

Christopher Regina, who owns Miller Place Inn with three siblings, said he was unaware of the 50-person limit, which he said makes it impossible to run profitable events in the 250-person-capacity banquet hall. He said he believed banquet halls, like restaurants, could have up to 50% capacity.

County officials said the banquet hall received three written warnings on COVID-19 restrictions that highlighted that gatherings had a 50-person limit. Regina said Thursday that "to the best of my knowledge … we received no warnings not to operate with more than 50 people."

County officials did not respond to Newsday's requests to view the warning notices.

The county said there was dancing at the Sweet 16 party and that some patrons were not wearing masks. State regulations require masks when patrons are not seated, and they bar dancing.

Regina said he was unaware of the rule on dancing. "All guests were wearing masks upon entering the building and we asked them to wear masks any place other than the table," he said, adding that he did not witness anyone violating that rule.

Regina said he is not "taking the virus lightly."

But he posted items on Facebook Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 that said "this pandemic is a complete scam" and questioned the use of masks. Facebook put a "false information" warning over a photo he posted that said coronavirus tests are unable to distinguish "covid from a cold or measles or ebola" — an assertion experts say is untrue.

Those posts are "a personal opinion, that’s all," Regina said, adding that no matter what he thinks, "I have to execute my business professionally and to the full extent of the law … My Facebook page has no relationship to my business ethics and my business responsibilities as a business owner."

Regina said he spent more than $10,000 on an air filtration system and "bacteria-killing" UV LED lights.

The infections tied to the party "illustrate the limitations of these filters," said Benjamin Hsiao, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University. The type of system that Regina said was installed captures some aerosols that contain the virus, but not all, he said. The effectiveness decreases in a venue like a banquet hall because, he said, "In a larger room, the amount of air you need to filter is much more."

Likewise, with UV lighting, "If the area is very big and the density of the light is not intense enough, it probably is not going to eliminate much virus," he said.

Ompad said adherence to COVID-19 guidelines ultimately helps business owners, because it allows more of the economy to open up.

And it prevents what should be joyous occasions from turning into tragic ones.

"How does this 16-year-old feel that their party ended up being a mini-outbreak and 37 people are infected?" she asked.

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