A wedding on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month is veering toward superspreader status, causing the island to experience its first case cluster since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and sending the destination known for its elite visitors and lush vacations into a tailspin.
Locals have every reason to be spooked, considering the now-notorious August wedding in Maine that led to 170 infections, killing eight people who did not even attend the reception. Another regional cluster, tied to a September church gathering in Nantucket, also drew headlines and attendant fury.
Perhaps most glaring: the Martha’s Vineyard outbreak appeared to be hitting people who worked the wedding harder than attendees themselves. Tisbury health agent and boards of health spokesperson Maura Valley told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that five of nine patients who had tested positive so far were workers at the wedding, while the other four were guests or part of the wedding party.
Outrage quickly exploded in the community.
The owner of Little Rock Farm Kitchen Catering and Bakery, Peter Koines, said he founded his business in 1982 and was “shocked” by the news of the wedding cluster. Koines, who identified his age only as “elderly,” told The Daily Beast he’s lived on the island his entire life. All 15 weddings Koines’s company had booked to cater this year were canceled, postponed, or significantly reduced in size, he said.
“We have done social-distancing drop offs with no contact,” Koines told The Daily Beast. “But I have refused to provide any type of staff, if that’s what they wanted. We wouldn’t participate in anything like that, and I wouldn’t ask my employees to put their lives in jeopardy.”
The first positive test connected to the wedding was reported to the county on Oct. 20, according to Valley, of the health department. Two of the positive patients left the island the day after the wedding, while two others completed their isolation on Wednesday and would be allowed to depart immediately. The remaining five cases were in people who live on Martha’s Vineyard, Valley explained.
The health official said the wedding broke state guidelines regarding travel protocol, including the requirement that most out-of-state visitors quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in Massachusetts—or a recent negative test result. However, the part-indoor, part-outdoor event, which she called “relatively small,” did not violate any state or local orders regarding the size of gatherings, Valley said. Outdoor gatherings can include as many as 100 people.
Valley declined to elaborate more specifically on how many people attended the event, how many people have been contacted for possible exposure, or in which town the wedding took place.
Boston Children’s Hospital’s Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein, who is also a researcher at Harvard Medical School, said the wedding—an event that apparently led to an array of transmissions—would qualify as a superspreader event.
“As careful as people are in their daily lives, if they then take part in large gatherings, those large events can be the major driver of disease in a community,” Brownstein told The Daily Beast. “What we know from our understanding of COVID to date is that transmission isn’t even, and there are superspreader events that can account for a large portion of cases. We’ve seen this over and over again through the pandemic. If we’re participating in large gatherings, that will keep this pandemic raging on.”
And Massachusetts, Brownstein noted, is seeing “a real rise in cases,” with rapid transmission growth and several areas reporting positivity rates above 10 percent. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus resource center, the state had a cumulative total of 153,037 cases Wednesday, and 9,888 deaths.
“There’s a moral component,” added Koines. “It’s frustrating to hear that someone decided it was OK to do that. This is the wrong thing to do.”
“It’s frustrating,” Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce & Tourism, said in an email on Wednesday. “We get it—we all dream of a time when we can drop the masks, hug one another, and feel normal again. But that day isn’t today—and our messaging is consistent: Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderful year-round destination, but we’ve all got to wear a mask, all day, every day, in all public spaces, for all our sakes.”
Ultimately, the actions of just a pandemic-fatigued few who, in this case, followed almost all local guidelines, can still impact the livelihoods—and health—of the community around them. Especially when an area is still getting acquainted with the lethality of COVID-19.
“We hadn’t had any real outbreaks until this one,” Tisbury select board chairman Jim Rogers told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “We’re a small island. All the towns are connected and what affects one town affects another.”
“All it takes is a few minutes of indiscretion, and next thing you know you’ve got an outbreak,” he added. “It’s concerning. I don’t want people to be scared, but I want people to be vigilant.”