Official: Party at epicenter of Westport coronavirus crisis likely topped 100 people
WESTPORT — The party this month that is thought to have accelerated the local spread of the novel coronavirus could have been attended by 100 or more guests , town officials said Tuesday, despite original reports of only 40 attendees.
The party has attracted local and national attention — in a Monday story in the New York Times, it was called “Party Zero” — as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases locally, regionally and nationally has skyrocketed in the last week. As of Tuesday, Westport has the most cases — 79 with at least 20 believed to be connected with the party — of any municipality in Connecticut.
“We were originally told 40, but it became apparent that there were more probably in the 100 range,” said Sara Harris, operations director for the town. “And there are rumors that there were more.”
However, officials warned that, at this point of the pandemic, the number of people in attendance is irrelevant. Because of the cultural, financial and family ties between the region and New York City — the American epicenter of the virus — the coronavirus’ spread to Westport was imminent. On Tuesday night, officials said anyone who has visited New York City should be quarantined for 14 days.
Harris said the rumors of the party’s size began circulating online and came to the attention of town officials in the days and week following Westport’s first diagnosed case of the virus on March 12, and after learning a South African partygoer became ill after attending the gathering. The man tested positive for the coronavirus in his native country on March 11.
“I would say the rumor started flowing around probably the next week, but I can’t confirm that because there were a lot of rumors at that point,” Harris said. “There were a lot of rumors across the board. When did we take that rumor seriously? Probably mid to late last week. But at that point, the message is, it’s in the community, it’s around us. It’s really irrelevant at this point.”
Westport-Weston Health District Director Mark Cooper said by March 13, he’d received unverified reports that the party might have been larger than reported, and even if the number of attendees was not publicly disclosed, it prompted a shift in the town’s response.
By the following Monday, Cooper said the city shifted from a contact-tracing model — wherein staff tried to locate everyone who attended the party and check for symptoms — to a containment model — placing restrictions on further public gatherings, businesses and public parks.
The decision not to release the number of attendees, Cooper said, had to do with state statutes that prohibit the release of potentially identifying medical information. Because of the shift from the contract-tracing model, the exact number of guests is unknown and irrelevant, he said. The town is working on the assumption that, at this point, the virus is everywhere.
“The focus really shouldn’t be on a party,” Cooper said. “It’s really kind of irrelevant. This is a worldwide pandemic.”
The party has been polarizing on social media and in the comments sections of news articles. Some commenters have left harassing and angry messages aimed at those who attended the party, often referencing the town’s affluence. Some have rushed to the defense of the partygoers and questioned the media’s focus on the event. Others have been critical of the town’s response.
Online rancor, some worry, could prevent people with symptoms from coming forward.
“If there’s a stigma, people won’t self report. And that’s a dangerous thing,” Westport resident Darcy Hicks said Tuesday.
Hicks said she does not blame those who attended the party, which was held before limitations on social gatherings had gone into effect and prior to the state’s first confirmed case.
“It’s silly at this point for anyone to point fingers,” said state Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport. “I know that people are concerned that this gives Westport a bad name. There happened to be one party, but we need to realize that Westport is just a harbinger of things to come.”
Still, at least some in town were critical of communication from town officials.
Representative Town Meeting member Sal Liccione said he only learned of the party and its potential impact on the town from the local news media. Liccione said it had been difficult to get answers on the virus’ spread from Town Hall and that, as a result, he had struggled answering questions from his constituents.
“I felt like we weren’t notified. We should have been notified a lot sooner,” Liccione said. “We haven’t heard anything from the administration, which is very, very disconcerting.”
Asked whether the town might have been able to enact more stringent containment measures sooner if the party size had been accurately reported from the onset, Harris said by the time the positive results surfaced, the response likely wouldn’t have changed.
“I don’t think that if we knew it was 40 people, or more than 40 people, it would have made us respond differently,” Harris said. “What mattered was that we had the names of the people and who was there, so we knew who to talk to and inform. ... Whether it was 40 or 100, six days later, it was already out there.”
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