Evanston COVID outbreak continues; cases tied to young people gathering at local bars

Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, speaks during a news conference last month in the office of Gov. Mark Gordon. (OFFICE OF GOV. MARK GORDON/Michael Pearlman)

EVANSTON — Uinta County continues to see additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 two weeks after the confirmation of five cases on June 4 that signaled the beginning of a local outbreak that still shows no signs of leveling off or slowing. With an additional nine cases confirmed on Thursday, June 18, as of press time Uinta County has had 98 confirmed cases and another 18 probable cases, with approximately 90% of those occurring in the past two weeks.

Uinta County Public Health and the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) have both stated that many of the cases appear tied to a “super spreader” situation on May 30, in which young people gathered at an Evanston bar or bars and failed to abide by social distancing recommendations. Indeed, young people continue to account for the majority of local cases, with people in the 20-29 age range comprising about a third of all Uinta County cases, according to data on the WDH website. Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said the proportion of young people with confirmed infection has continued to grow as new cases are identified.

While community members may want additional information on which bars were involved in the super spreader event, Proffit said the businesses involved have cooperated and are following health guidance and the practice is not to outright name them.

“If they had willfully defied orders, especially having positive cases within their employees but requiring that they work, which resulted in spread, they would be named and probably prosecuted,” Proffit said. “That hasn’t been the case, as far as I’m aware.

“However, a significant majority of our new cases, especially in that first wave, were directly connected to gatherings at the bars. This was a lot of people gathering in a few places,” she said. “We really hope this serves to remind and reinforce the importance of adhering to statewide public health orders for bars and restaurants, which essentially haven’t changed in the requirement for staff to wear masks if they have customer contact and for distancing measures to be in place, including no dancing and no karaoke. … We are not sure who was the ‘case zero’ from whom all of these people were infected. A night or two at the bar, however, have been what are called super spreading events.”

Proffit said testing results have backed that up.

“We continue to find connections back to the bar weekends and their contacts are showing up positive, which I’m calling second wave still. But there are some popping up that seem more random. We’ve had a small cluster related to a family/friend gathering that hasn’t had a firm connection to the bars, and a few others seem to be connected to a gathering in Fremont County,” she said.

Fremont County has had by far the most confirmed positive cases, approaching 300 as of press time.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon addressed the Uinta County outbreak during a press conference on Tuesday, June 16, noting that the local outbreak is contributing significantly to a statewide uptick in cases.

“This is a time when we want to mind our P’s and Q’s, and if you look at what’s happened in Uinta County, where we’ve had a number of cases … we see the spiking there and we see it mostly in the younger age groups, and I think this talks a little bit about the carelessness and the recklessness and sometimes the thoughtlessness that can mean that we’ll lose ground.”

Gordon said he’s spoken with businesses and individuals throughout the state who are concerned about the loss of revenue, particularly related to decreased tourism, and said, “We need Wyoming to be the safe place, not the place that’s spiking on national news, but the place that is safe to go to, where people act responsibly and do the right thing.”

Gordon said tourism in the state has begun to increase, with visitation to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks returning to about 75% of normal for this time of year, although hotels are still not returning to typical occupancy. Gordon said many tourists appear to be staying in RVs at campgrounds as opposed to renting hotel rooms, with visits to state park campgrounds dramatically increased from 2019.

“This is really important for our revenues,” said Gordon, “not just in the northwest corner but everywhere.” He emphasized that as more people continue to visit the state, and as locals venture out more for summer activities, he understands how frustrating it can be as a restaurant or bar owner not able to utilize all of the available space in a business. “No one wants to have that bar or that restaurant that we can say, ‘That’s where this spike occurred.’”

Two prominent local bars have voluntarily closed for the past several days due to the spike. Rachel Reifon, owner of Kate’s, and Wes Mills, manager at the Legal Tender, both said they chose to close their doors for a period of time when they were notified about the new cases and the likelihood that spread was occurring in local bars.

Reifon said she chose to close Kate’s as soon as she was made aware of one positive case in an individual who had been in the bar.

“I went with my gut and decided it was the right thing to do,” she said.

Mills said the Legal Tender has been following all public health guidance, including signage asking people to socially distance and not enter if they have had any symptoms of illness, hand sanitizer availability at numerous locations, increased spacing between tables and staff wearing masks, as well as having masks available for patrons.

However, Mills acknowledged the difficulty in getting customers who have been drinking in a bar to abide by the recommendations.

The loss of revenue while being closed for the past several days has been considerable, said Mills, at a time when the hospitality industry has already been severely hit with lost income over the past few months and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat and keep people employed; however, he too said closing was the right thing to do.

Both bars plan to reopen in coming days, although Mills said they plan to cut their capacity down to 25% of what would normally be allowed in an effort to do even more to keep customers, staff and the community as a whole safe.

“I hope maybe people are taking this more seriously now,” said Mills. “It’s like it got to be nice weather and everybody wanted to forget about it.”

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