Bars, Strip Clubs and Churches: U.S. Virus Outbreaks Enter Unwieldy Phase

On Monday, June 22, 2020, Las Vegas pedestrians will walk past the Flamingo Hotel and Casino along the Strip. (Bridget Bennett / The New York Times)
PITTSBURGH - After months of closure, during which coronavirus outbreaks occurred frequently in nursing homes, prisons, and meat packaging operations, the nation is entering a new and uncertain phase of the pandemic. New COVID-19 clusters have been found in a Pentecostal church in Oregon, a strip club in Wisconsin, and at every conceivable location in between.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at least 100 people tested positive for the virus after visiting bars in the nightlife district of Tigerland, popular with students at Louisiana State University.
At least 11 employees fell ill in a Christian summer camp near Colorado Springs shortly before the start of the season, which led to the camp canceling overnight stays for the first time in 63 years.
And in Las Vegas, just a few weeks after the casinos reopened, a handful of casino, restaurant, and hotel employees ran positive tests, and frightened employees asked guests to wear masks in a video-controlled press conference on Monday.
The newly emerging clusters, the size of which varies from a few to hundreds of cases and which have occurred in both large and small cities, reflect the unpredictable course of the corona virus. They also underline the risks that experts say are likely to persist as long as states try to reopen the economy and Americans venture into the public again without a vaccine.
New known virus cases increased in 23 states on Monday as the outlook deteriorated across much of the country's south and west. Coronavirus hospitalizations were highest in the pandemic in Arizona and Texas, and Missouri reported the highest one-day cases over the weekend.
While much of the Northeast and Midwest continued to improve, there were signs of new spread in Ohio, where the number of cases was gradually rising after weeks of improvement, and in Pennsylvania, where several counties had an unsettling number of cases.
"This is exactly what most people would expect if you pick up home stay orders and isolation orders," said Rebecca Christofferson, an infectious disease specialist at Louisiana State University, who created new types of virus clusters.
"All of these things together make it a complex problem - human behavior, contact and virus," she said. "They put everything in one big pot and boom!"
It is somewhat of a return to the earliest days of the virus in the United States, when the coronavirus silently brewed and events such as funerals, choral practice, and birthday parties became events that led to widespread transmission.
This type of group meeting was always a risk, but it became much less common in months when much of the country was closed. The return to public life has brought back these opportunities as more and more people shop, eat, visit family and friends and even hug each other again.
"It's really just about contact," said Christofferson.
The virus now hits places that once escaped the worst pandemic and reflects how a disease that originally hit urban centers like New York City has spread. Known cases are now on the rise near places like McAllen, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and Nogales, Arizona.
In Union County, Oregon, a rural community of 27,000, about four hours from Portland, officials had only registered eight cases of the virus by early June. By June 20, the number had grown to over 250. Most were associated with an outbreak in a local church, the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church.
"It was a bit surprising because so many people stayed at home for so long," said Paul Anderes, a Union County representative.
Houses of worship that were once closed by governors in many states are now sources of large clusters. Church outbreaks have been reported in states such as Alabama, Kansas and West Virginia.
Republican Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia said six outbreaks have been linked to state churches, including three that have been active since last week. He said he had no plans to close churches and described them as "the most sacred ground," but also admitted that they were a serious danger.
"The reality is really simple," he said. If the parishioners don't stick to wearing masks or sitting on any other bench, he said, "We ask for it."
Other vectors for the virus quickly emerged in the weeks after many states reopened. At least four cases of the virus were associated with the Cruisin 'Chubbys Gentlemens Club in Wisconsin Dells, and several cases were associated with fraternity rush parties in Oxford, Mississippi.
A coronavirus case was reported in Las Vegas among workers at the LINQ Hotel + Experience on the Strip. Two other cases were found among employees of the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.
"I'm very, very scared," said Diana Thomas, a maid in the flamingo.
She said that most of the guests had not worn masks and that she was afraid to bring the coronavirus home to her 21-year-old son with asthma.
"I am a single parent," said Thomas. "And for me it is unacceptable that my son gets sick, no.
Cases have been on the rise since the beginning of June, even after the casinos reopened on June 4. In Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, the daily average of new cases doubled in two weeks from 124 to 250 on Sunday. Nevada reported the highest increase in one day, with 452 cases last week.
The increase is due to the fact that officials have taken steps to safely reopen tourism in a country where many workers depend on the hotel industry. One in four employees said they were unemployed in May. In the newly opened casinos, traders and players are separated by transparent plastic dividers, and the dice are dipped in disinfectant after each throw.
"It's great that the tourists come back, but the workers have to be safe," said Florence Lee, who works at MGM Grand Casino. "Please wear masks and social distance for us."
With more and more parts of the nation reopening, predicting where new clusters will emerge has become more complex. Public health experts are closely monitoring group meetings that could become "super spreader" events, as well as less understood circumstances in which certain individuals appear to be more predisposed to the transmission of the virus.
"The characteristic of this virus - and that makes it so difficult to control - is that you don't necessarily have to spread it evenly," said Dr. Arnold S. Monto, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. "It is unpredictable."
Just like in the pandemic, outbreaks continue in prisons, nursing homes and food processing plants. More than 230 people were infected at a Dole vegetable packaging facility in Springfield, Ohio, and at least a dozen cases have been linked to an apple packaging facility in Oswego County, New York.
Public health officials in several states have identified coronavirus cases in more than 50 people who have participated in or worked on police protests following the death of George Floyd in late May. So far, no major outbreaks have been directly related to these gatherings.
Some of the latest cases involve athletics as student athletes return to campus and professional teams hope to play again. At least 23 soccer players at Clemson University were infected, at least 10 athletes in the state of Iowa and at least five soccer players in the state of Texas. Several professional sports teams, including the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Lightning, have also reported cases.
New outbreaks in some cities have overwhelmed hospitals.
Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, warned over the weekend of a "desperate public health situation" in central Washington's Yakima County, where coronavirus cases have increased, hospitals have reached capacity, and patients have been brought to Seattle for medical care .
It commemorates an earlier stage of the virus when Washington State was in crisis mode after reporting the country's first known case of the corona virus in January and the country's first large cluster in a care facility near Seattle in February .
After the first outbreak was brought under control, officials experienced a resurgence in Yakima County, home to 250,000 people and more than 6,400 coronavirus infections. The situation has now gotten worse: the county has more cases than all of South Dakota, and the virus has become so widespread that many Yakima Hospital staff stop working because they feel sick or are in quarantine.
"We are honestly at the break point," said Inslee, who was planning to oblige the people in the county to wear face covers in public. "We don't want to see people in parking lots who can't get hospital care. And if we don't act aggressively now, that will happen."
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company

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