At least 10 people who were at a party attended by area restaurant workers earlier this month in Chatham have tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting some local eateries to temporarily close or scale back service and authorities to launch a public health campaign to identify everyone the partygoers have been in contact with.
Robert Duncanson, Chatham’s director of health and natural resources, said in a telephone interview that the state Department of Public Health recently informed the town of the cluster of cases, which “appear to be related to the same event.”
Officials were told that a number of people who attended the party work in the restaurant industry, Duncanson said.
After the news about the cluster of positive cases was released, several restaurants said on their Facebook pages that they had temporarily closed or were scaling back service and some had similar messages on their phones.
Duncanson said officials were told between 30 and 50 people may have attended the party and that contact tracing is underway. Under state public health guidelines, anyone who’s been in close contact with someone at the party should self-quarantine for 14 days, he said.
Any restaurant whose employee or employees were at the party should close for at least 24 hours to conduct cleaning and disinfecting, he said. He said the town health agent on Wednesday informed local restaurants of the cluster and told them to advise staffers to be on the lookout for anyone with symptoms and to take “appropriate precautions.”
Duncanson said nine of the 10 party attendees who have tested positive do not live in Chatham.
“This was definitely our first cluster, absolutely,” Duncanson said.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the risk to coworkers and patrons who may have come into contact with an infected restaurant employee depends in large part on whether the employee wore an appropriate face covering.
“If folks who might have been affected were waiting tables without wearing masks, and the patrons were not wearing masks while they were eating, it’s certainly something that could have been passed in that way,” Walensky said. Those who think they could have been exposed to an infected person should quarantine for 14 days, she said.
“The big lesson here, for the people who are nowhere near Chatham, is we have every possibility of this hitting very close to home again,” she said. “Just because it looks like it’s somewhere else right now, I promise you there are still cases in this state, and we still have to keep up our vigilance.”
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Chatham Board of Selectmen, Duncanson addressed the cluster.
“There was apparently a house party in Chatham back in the second week of July attended by a large number of individuals who were not wearing masks,” Duncanson told the board.
The cluster, he told the selectmen, “just highlights the fact that these large parties where people are not practicing social distancing and not wearing masks can have significant impacts.”
He told the board members that “these kinds of events are really problematic, and they are hitting home now on the Cape. We’ve all heard them in other parts of the country but it can, in fact, happen here.”
In a statement, the state Department of Public Health said it’s in “close contact with local health officials in Chatham and surrounding communities and is conducting active surveillance in collaboration with local officials to identify possible cases and contacts associated with the event.”
The department “will continue to support and provide guidance to local health officials in these communities.”
The Department of Public Health defines clusters broadly. A spokeswoman said clusters are defined as multiple cases linked to a common setting. As such, clusters can occur with as few as two to three positive cases.
State Senator Julian C. Cyr, a Democrat who represents the Cape and Islands, said Thursday by phone that officials were concerned that some party attendees may not be responding to contact tracer calls, possibly over concerns regarding underage drinking.
Cyr, who also serves as the spokesman for the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, urged anyone contacted by tracers to “be forthright” in responding to questions.
“We’re not here to get anyone in trouble,” Cyr said. “We just want to make sure we get information that helps keep people safe.”
Shareen Davis, chair of the Chatham Board of Selectmen, said the cluster was troubling.
“The news is really alarming, but unfortunately not surprising,” Davis said, citing the influx of summer visitors to the region and recent instances of people gathering in crowds, sometimes without masks.
Davis said a few local restaurants have closed temporarily but officials aren’t certain those closures are related to the cluster.
Among the Chatham restaurants that have scaled back operations in the wake of the cluster is Hangar B.
“Due to recent cases of Covid 19 in our surrounding community, we will only be doing take out for the next few weeks,” the restaurant said in a statement Thursday on its website.
In a Facebook posting Tuesday, Hangar B said it was “happy to report negative test results from our team, we have still asked some staff to quarantine for 14 days to be extra careful.”
A Hangar B manager said Thursday that no staff members attended the July 12 party. The manager, who would only identify himself as Chris P., said he was unaware of the party until a news crew stopped by Hangar B on Wednesday to inquire about it.
Another local restaurant, Larry’s P.X., had no cases, according to a man who answered the phone at the establishment Thursday and identified himself as the owner.
“Most of our employees are on the older side, so they weren’t at the party,” said the man, who would provide only his first name, Jay.
Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said in an e-mail that the focus shouldn’t be on restaurants in the wake of the Chatham cluster.
“This was a house party at a personal residence, where a number of people who attended have tested positive,” Luz wrote. “The guidance from the Governor and doctors on limiting group interaction is the story, not that some who attended work at restaurants. These were personal friends who chose to get together and have a party.”
Chatham Town Manager Jill R. Goldsmith described the pandemic Wednesday as a “storm” in her regular community update posted to the town’s official website.
Noting that a “rare tornado” hit the region in July 2019, Goldsmith wrote that this year, “we face a storm of much longer duration with impacts not to trees and powerlines but to lives and livelihoods. I don’t know how long we will have to endure this public health emergency, but I am confident we will support each other for as long as it takes to see our community through it.”
On Monday, Goldsmith said, the town Board of Health voted to extend the hours mandating wearing masks downtown by one hour, until 10 p.m.
“The request for this extension was made by several downtown merchants in recognition that more people are utilizing Main Street later in the evenings than was initially expected,” she said. The board clarified that those removing masks to eat or drink should be seated and/or socially distanced from non-family members when doing so.
According to the order from the Board of Health, the town is “concerned that ... the combination of large crowds and narrow roads and sidewalks will make it difficult to maintain social distancing” as required by Governor Charlie Baker.
Anyone who violates the order is subject to a written warning for the first offense, a fine of $100 for a second infraction, and a $300 levy for a third or subsequent violation.
Globe Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.