Why Outbreaks At A Well-Known Westport Bar And Other Spots Have Gone Unreported By Health Officials
Bar and restaurant workers say that lack of enforcement by the city has left them doing the work of preventing the virus from spreading.
As Kansas City prepared to reopen in mid-May after the mayor's coronavirus shutdown, local leaders touted a host of safety measures to prevent the virus from spreading, including new rules for businesses and a system of tracking cases and outbreaks.
Numbers of new COVID-19 cases in Kansas City, Missouri, are now far higher than they were during the spring shutdown, but many of the planned measures still have not been fully implemented.
And though the health department updates case numbers daily, it provides few details about where cases are spreading.
Servers at one well-known Kansas City bar, Harry's Bar and Tables, where a small outbreak occurred this summer, say the city’s failures have left them feeling unsafe and stuck doing the work of public health workers.
“The city doesn’t seem to be doing anything except giving us rules that they don’t have to enforce,” says a Harry's employee who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity.
When Harry’s reopened after the shutdown on June 1, the Westport nightlife institution seemed to be doing everything right when it came to curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
Tables were spread apart, staff wore masks, surfaces and even pens were regularly sanitized, and customers were asked to provide names and contact information in the event they needed to be reached if someone came down with the virus.
“We had so many people come in early on once we reopened, saying we were doing it better than anybody,” says Harry’s bartender Eddie Gartland. “That we were following the guidelines the best, that our staff was masked up, when they had gone to other bars and that wasn’t the case.”
But the illusion of safety didn’t last long.
Gartland and other staff members say they were stunned by the crowds that turned out as soon as the bar reopened. Even with limited capacity, they say the bar was doing roughly double normal business on many nights.
Doorman Jesse Marden says the staff was soon overwhelmed by customers flouting mask and distance guidelines.
“It used to be so easy. There were clear lines on what it took to get kicked out of a bar,” Marden says. “Now the friendliest person in the world can just be a forgetful drunk who’s talking with other people without a mask on.”
Within a few weeks, on July 12, server Savannah Niemeyer tested positive for COVID-19 before going on a family trip.
The same day, a post on the bar's Facebook page disclosed the positive case and announced it would close for two weeks so that all of the staff could be tested and the building thoroughly cleaned.
Niemeyer, whose symptoms were relatively mild, waited to be contacted by the health department so she could provide details about her case and contacts. But she says she was never contacted, nor were four co-workers who were also found to have the virus.
“I figure when a person tests positive, they would be asked about where they work or how it was assumed they got the virus,” Niemeyer says. “So whenever I tested positive in July and four other co-workers also did, we weren’t asked those types of questions.”
Harry’s reopened in late July and the staff returned to work. In the following weeks, Niemeyer continued to hear of more COVID-19 cases among workers at other restaurants in Westport and other parts of the city.
So she was surprised when Kansas City’s health department released a chart on Aug. 10 showing that out of 55 outbreaks in the city since March, only one had been identified in a bar or restaurant.
“I know a lot of people personally who have contracted the virus that work in bars and restaurants,” Niemeyer says. “It almost seems like they have no idea, because they’re not asking people.”
Health department director Dr. Rex Archer acknowledges that the department likely missed many cases in its contact tracing and reporting in July, and that its capacity remains well below needed levels.
Archer says the department's work has been constrained by delays in getting federal funding, the long process of hiring and training tracers, and low levels of public health funding even before the pandemic.
“We did not at that point have the staff and contact tracers to do the follow-up to be able to say, ‘You have gone to work. You’ve exposed these co-workers. They all need to be tested.’ That’s not happening and it needs to be, but it’s not,” Archer says.
Archer says the contact tracing program has improved in recent weeks, as federal funds began to be allocated through Jackson and Clay counties.
But even with the funds, about 40 tracers are currently doing this work. The city is authorized to hire 100.
Lack of adequate contact tracing makes it harder for elected officials to make decisions that could affect the health of entire cities, explains Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“Many jurisdictions have had to make decisions about whether to allow indoor dining, whether to allow childcare or in-person schooling,” Rivers says. “And those decisions would really be best informed by observation.”
Kansas City’s health department has shared little data with the public about specific outbreaks and where they are taking place.
Unlike the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, where the health department regularly updates a map of outbreaks that include five or more people, Kansas City has only disclosed information about a handful of the most significant outbreaks.
Archer says the health department has been looking at ways of sharing outbreak data. But he also argues that outbreak data would be of limited use for the public because test results can still take five to nine days to come back and because most new cases appearing now are not thought to come from large, individual events.
“We do have outbreaks in clusters, where there’s a birthday party or a funeral or various settings or a workplace where everybody kind of knows everybody that’s there, and it’s easier to connect the dots,” Archer says. “But if you had this disease from being out in public, and didn’t know the people that you were standing next to for several hours, singing or whatever, that kind of outbreak is very difficult to track down and connect.”
The city’s COVID-19 order does, in fact, provide a means of collecting data for bars and restaurants, although often it isn't used by those businesses.
Tenth Amended Order 20-01, which was signed by Mayor Quinton Lucas on July 10, states that “business operations should maintain a record of occupants who are seated on the premises or in contact with station furniture, fixture, or other equipment at a facility for a period of longer than ten (10) minutes.”
Such records could be provided to city officials to assist in contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. But mayoral spokeswoman Morgan Said says that is a recommendation, not a mandate.
In statement to KCUR, Mayor Lucas wrote: “Our contact tracing efforts remain imperative to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in our community, and we appreciate all businesses and patrons alike who assist in this effort to keep our community healthy.”
Rivers, of Johns Hopkins, acknowledges health departments are under unprecedented strain that can make it difficult for them to operate as needed during the pandemic. But she says that without information about outbreaks and contacts, the public isn’t fully able to do its part to stay safe.
“I think the more we know, the better we can do," Rivers says. "And even if it is only a fraction of cases that we understand their source, that’s still more than we knew before. And so I do encourage reporting, even if it is only a small fraction of the total cases in a community.”
It’s now been a month since Harry’s Bar and Tables reopened, and some staff members say it hasn’t felt the same.
In recent weeks, several Westport bars and restaurants have temporarily closed after staff members tested positive.
Harry's bartender Eddie Gartland, who is 34 and was treated a few years ago for heart arrhythmia and myocardia, a heart inflammation that can also result from COVID-19, says he has limited his work to one shift per week in an attempt to limit his possible exposure to the coronavirus.
The city received around 2,500 complaints about potential guideline violations in businesses as of mid-August and took enforcement action on about two-thirds of those, according to Archer.
But Gartland has been disappointed by patrons who ignore guidelines and what he sees as an inadequate response by the health department.
“Basically, we’re like the arbiters, or we’re like the gatekeepers for the rules now,” Gartland says. “You’re putting it on a waitress at a bar to enforce mask policy. I just don’t think it’s fair.”
Gartland says he’s been looking into other jobs, including becoming a contact tracer, although the pay is much less than he used to make bartending full time.
He's currently living mostly off savings, a luxury, he explains, that many service industry workers don't have. But his funds are quickly dwindling.
Meanwhile, the employee who requested anonymity is hopeful that their brief bout with the virus has conferred immunity that will provide protection against another infection. But the employee still worries about the safety and well-being of fellow workers.
“I definitely felt that everything felt more real,” the employee says. “I understand the panic and concern of all of my coworkers who hadn’t tested positive. You’re basically thinking, ‘OK, how many more times are we going to have to shut down?’”