When the wedding guests had their temperatures taken at the door, their readings were normal. Some people who came from out of state brought proof that they had tested negative for the coronavirus.
But the guests didn’t wear face coverings or stay socially distanced during the Aug. 7 reception inside an inn on Millinocket Lake, and the venue’s dining areas were packed with 25 to 30 more people than its license allowed.
That’s according to a state health inspector’s report that contains new details about what happened during the now-infamous gathering that has been linked to 123 cases of COVID-19 — and one death — in what has quickly become Maine’s most sprawling outbreak of the disease.
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THE WEDDING OUTBREAK
After a wedding ceremony at the Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket, the guests celebrated the bride and groom during a reception at the Big Moose Inn, an established business that offers food, rooms, cabins, camp sites and beautiful views just a stone’s throw from Katahdin.
Now, the 123 people who have become infected include 54 inmates and employees of the York County Jail in Alfred, more than 200 miles to the south, and nine employees and residents of a rehabilitation center in Madison. One woman who did not attend the wedding has died.
State officials have still not shared much information about the ceremony in East Millinocket, but records from the Aug. 18 inspection of the Big Moose Inn that the BDN requested shed some light on how the virus could have circulated during the party.
The Big Moose Inn did take some precautions. Staff at the venue wore masks, while signs at the door encouraged guests to do the same.
The wedding guests were apparently required to have their temperatures taken before they could enter the facility, and all of them had normal temperatures, according to the report. The inn also got some documentation showing that its guests who came from out of state had tested negative for COVID-19.
But once inside the venue, the total number of wedding guests — 62 — exceeded the 50-person limit that the state allows for indoor gatherings as part of its coronavirus restrictions.
Moreover, because there were more than 40 other guests at the inn who were unaffiliated with the wedding — 17 were sitting on an open deck, while between 25 and 30 were in the bar — it brought the total in the building to between 104 and 109, the state inspector wrote. That exceeded the 80-person seating limit on the inn’s state license.
Most of the wedding guests were stationed in a single event room, sitting at 10 tables that each had four to six chairs, the inspector wrote. A half-dozen guests were relegated to an overflow area in an enclosed porch.
However, in both of those areas, the tables were spaced less than six feet apart, which is the minimum separation that the state requires for dining businesses, according to the inspector.
At least five employees waited on the wedding group, taking orders, making drinks and serving them food. But wedding guests did not wear masks themselves or attempt to stay socially distanced, and the staff did not force them to, the inspector wrote. Now, two employees of the inn have been infected as part of the outbreak, state health officials announced earlier this week.
Only one area of the inn — its bar — had tables that were spread six feet apart and guests who were staying a safe distance from each other, even though they weren’t wearing face coverings, the inspector added.
And while the state requires some businesses to collect the contact information of guests in case investigators need to trace the spread of a COVID-19 outbreak, the inn did not do so for the wedding guests.
Before the inspection, the state also received two complaints alleging that employees of the inn did not wash their hands properly during the reception and may not have sufficiently cleaned the event room afterward. The inspector was unable to determine how the staff washed their hands because the kitchen was closed when she dropped by on Aug. 18, but she found the event room was closed after the wedding reception, then cleaned and disinfected the next day.
As a result of the inspector’s findings, the Big Moose Inn first faced an imminent health hazard citation from the Maine CDC, an official notice that the inn violated one or more state health rules. The citation asked the inn’s operators to comply going forward.
But during a follow-up inspection, a state health inspector found that dining room tables were still spaced less than six feet apart and that employees were not wearing face coverings or ensuring proper social distancing, according to a copy of the notice of suspension. In addition, the business did not have correct documentation showing that out-of-state guests were following travel restrictions meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The owner of the Big Moose Inn, Laurie Cormier, has not responded to multiple interview requests since the outbreak came to light, but issued a statement late Friday saying that the venue has “worked hard” to abide by the state’s coronavirus restrictions, but “did make an error in the interpretation” of a rule that limits indoor gatherings to 50 people and is now working with state health officials to ensure it’s operating safely.
“While we cannot be sure the virus was fully spread at our facility, we know that there are things that we can be doing better,” Cormier said.
State health officials are still deciding whether to also sanction the church that hosted the wedding ceremony and the couple that hosted the wedding. Organizers of the wedding, including the couple, have not responded to requests for comment or agreed to be interviewed.
In addition to causing outbreaks miles away, the wedding outbreak has had a number of ripple effects locally. Schools in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway have delayed their opening by two weeks, and several East Millinocket School Department staff members — including the superintendent — have tested positive.
The local hospital also expects to take a financial hit after delaying nonessential services while it responds to the outbreak.
After going most of the pandemic without recording a single case, 23 Millinocket residents had contracted the coronavirus as of Sunday, according to the Maine CDC’s most recent town-by-town case data. East Millinocket has recorded 19 cases, while Medway — which faced an earlier wave of 12 cases — has now seen 13 total cases since the start of the pandemic.