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A choir rehearsal, a beach party and a Carnival ball: Inside three events that innocently sparked outbreaks

Alex Woodward
Winter Party Festival

A few days after the US reported its first death from coronavirus in Washington state, Donald Trump said a widespread outbreak in the US was not inevitable.

One day later, he said Democrats’ criticism of his leadership in the impending crisis was a “hoax” much like their impeachment of him.

On 12 March, he suspended his campaign rallies. The NBA and NCAA cancelled games, and a few days later, Disney shuttered the gates at its parks.

While cruise ships, nursing homes and prisons have become incubators for the virus, health officials and doctors have pointed to several key events across the US that contributed to a spike in illnesses, from locker rooms at the Staples Centre after NBA games to a single funeral in Georgia that likely led to others.

Epidemiologists have pointed to Mardi Gras as a likely accelerant for the spread of the disease, while most Americans throughout the US were similarly not under any order to remain at home or avoid crowds, going about their daily lives as normal through the end of February.

But the events point to how easily the virus can spread, exponentially, from person to person, creating a chain of transmission that can reach dozens of people within a month after only one person is infected – weeks before anyone realised.

Here are the stories of a few of them.

A choir practice in Washington

A community choir group in Mount Vernon, roughly an hour north of Seattle, held its weekly rehearsal on 10 March inside Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.

Founded in 1984, the Skagit Valley Chorale has roughly 120 members.

The practise — held 23 days before Washington governor Jay Inslee issued a statewide stay-at-home order — was optional. There were no reported cases of the virus in the area at the time. But that morning, the county’s health department issued a warning to cancel non-essential gatherings. Word had not yet reached the group.

Only half of the group’s singers joined the rehearsal that day.

Within a few days, at least six members had a fever or reported symptoms. On 16 March, 24 people reported illness, including some members who attended the 10 March rehearsal. One member tested positive for the virus. More cases were confirmed in the following days

The group gave a roster to the county’s health department and contacted everyone in the group, regardless whether they attended the practise.

Weeks later, health officials believe the rehearsal may have been a “super-spreading” event, with 45 people experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, including 28 confirmed cases.

Two members, both in their eighties, have died.

Following the death of one longtime singer, chorale president Jim Owen said: “We sat within eight feet of her once a week, for years, and now that chair is empty ... That really brings it home.”

At the time of the rehearsal, the state did not yet ban large gatherings, though health officials warned that people 60 and older should avoid them.

The group is withholding the names of the victims.

Carolynn Comstock, chorale co-president, told KOMO News that “this virus looks different on everyone.”

She said: “Some people had a fever, some people didn’t. Some people had a cough, some people didn’t. Some people only had that loss of sense of smell and taste.”

More than 8,600 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Washington state, according to the state’s Department of Health, as of this week. Nearly 400 people have died.

In Skagit County, nearly 200 cases have been identified, with 23 hospitalisations, and at least five deaths. Thirty-seven people have recovered.

The group is hoping to reunite by the fall to prepare for its December “Heralding Christmas” concerts.

A beach party in Miami

Crowds flocked to Florida‘s beaches as warm weather returned to the coast last month, including hundreds of people who attended a week-long festival and fundraiser for the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Miami‘s 27th annual Winter Party Festival, a six-day event held this year from 4-10 March, packed beaches and hotel rooms with dance parties, raising thousands of dollars and promoting “safe havens, places where we can be ourselves, surrounded by our chosen family and accepted and loved just the way we are”, organisers said.

A few days before the event, Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez held a meeting with state and local officials “to address concerns” over the coronavirus outbreak, which had not yet been identified in the state. The mayor said “out of an abundance of caution ... we want to be prepared to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors”.

When the parties started on 4 March, several cases were confirmed in the state. Organisers distributed 10,000 packs of hand sanitiser.

Weeks later, several attendees tested positive for Covid-19. Two men have died.

Israel Carrera, a 40-year-old Miami resident, was the county’s first reported coronavirus-related death. He died on 26 March. Born in Cuba, he was a radiologist who practised in Paraguay before moving to the US in 2016.

In a statement, Task Force director Rea Carey said: “He was so clearly loved by many. The particular cruelty of this virus, this pandemic, is our inability to be together in grief, to hold each other and to care for each other.”

Task force volunteer Ron Rich was hospitalised with the virus late last month before his death.

In a statement, the organisation said: “Ron was a familiar face to the guests who attended the Task Force Gala, Winter Party Festival and our Fort Lauderdale house parties over the past five years as his big smile and warmth had him mostly serving on our hospitality team.”

On 12 March, Miami cancelled all mass gatherings, and Florida was under a state of emergency.

In mid-March, festival attendee Tom Carr was struck by fever and chills. He was tested along with his husband on 16 March, found positive for coronavirus, and self-isolated at home. A week later, he was hospitalised, according to the Sun Sentinel. He remains in intensive care in a coma

On 16 March, task force director Carey said: “We know there are many places people could have been exposed before and after [the] Winter Party as this virus has developed, but we wanted to make this information public as soon as possible ... The health and safety of anyone who participates in any Task Force event is of great importance to us.”

Since the outbreaks were first reported in Florida, the state has identified more than 14,300 cases, as of this week. Nearly 300 people have died.

Members of the Zulu Social Aid & Please Club parade on 25 February in New Orleans. (Getty Images)

A Carnival ball in New Orleans

On 21 February, four days before Mardi Gras, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club — one of the largest black Carnival organisations in New Orleans — held its annual ball, a lively black-tie affair with glamorous ball gowns and sequined outfits, live music and a coronation of this year’s royalty.

Brian Sims, a member of the organisation for 24 years, was this year’s king. Dr Chana Macias was named the 2020 Zulu queen.

The krewe’s annual parade rolled early on Mardi Gras morning, which this year fell on 25 February, with 1,500 people on 29 floats riding across town starting at 8 am and winding through the city for several hours, greeting thousands of people on the route.

A few weeks later, at least 20 people among the 800-member organisation were hospitalised or are recovering from coronavirus symptoms.

At least two of its members have died, though New Orleans City Council member and Zulu Board of Directors chair Jay Banks has said five other members have died amid the pandemic.

Cornell “Dickey” Charles, a beloved coach at Lusher Charter High School, died on 24 March.

Larry Hammond, a retired postal service worker and the organisations’ 2007 king, also died late last month.

In a statement, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said: “It breaks my heart to mark the passing of Dr. Larry Hammond...a vital part of our city’s rebirth after Katrina, [and] a culture bearer in the truest sense. We mourn his passing [and] all Covid victims with a heavy heart. May he rest in peace.”

The ball was held at the Ernest N Morial Convention Centre, where many Carnival balls are staged through the season. It’s now a temporary hospital housing 1,000 beds for recovering patients to relieve the area’s overstressed hospitals.

More than 16,000 cases of the virus have been identified in the state, as of this week. Nearly 600 people have died.

Following the outbreak, Zulu president Elroy James said: “What I have done as president of the organisation is to make sure that we walk along with our state leaders and our local leaders to make sure that we ask our brothers to stay safe [and] stay home.”

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