PITTSFIELD — She was only going to turn 21 once. So, on that day, Oct. 24, her father treated her to a dinner out in a private room at Mazzeo’s Ristorante in Pittsfield.
After dinner, they drove north to Methuselah Bar and Lounge, the North Street bar and restaurant. The father says he wondered about the wisdom of going out, given the coronavirus. The state reported four new COVID-19 infections countywide that day.
“We looked at the numbers, it seemed pretty safe,” said the father, who asked not to be named. About five days later, a young man who celebrated with them that evening began feeling symptoms, then tested positive for COVID-19. The father, hearing the news, got tested. He had the virus. He went into quarantine and alerted Mazzeo’s and Methuselah. Contact tracers kicked into gear.
Kayla Donnelly, the city’s public health nurse manager, said about 20 infections can be linked to that evening at Methuselah. The city’s director of public health said transmission did not occur at Mazzeo’s.
The virus was on the move in Pittsfield.
Today, the host of that birthday party says he regrets what happened.
“We went out and took a risk, and unfortunately we got sick,” he said. “Nobody wants to get sick, and nobody wants to get anyone else sick.”
PITTSFIELD — The Methuselah Bar and Lounge on North Street has closed because employees at the business have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Methuselah’s owner, City Councilor Yuki Cohen, was behind the bar that night — and is friends with the family that came to celebrate. Cohen said she has followed the state’s guidelines, as her business, like others, struggled financially.
“You’re always concerned, but you follow all the protocols,” she said, ticking through a list of them, from cleaning practices to masking. “But, even with that, we are indoors even though we have ventilation, the fans that are pulling the air out, we sanitize often.”
The father says his group wore masks when not sitting at their table, taking them off when seated and snacking on a cheese platter and cupcakes.
For months, the number of new daily coronavirus infections in Pittsfield remained low.
But, that changed in late October, when three coronavirus clusters tied to area restaurants and a private gathering accelerated the spread of the virus through the community.
“We were trending very well for so long,” said Gina Armstrong, the city’s director of public health. “So, when we saw, within a 14-day period, over 100 cases — with a surge like that, we had to take every possible measure to try to tamp that down as quickly as we could.” One such measure: a controversial pause on indoor dining and the suspension of in-person learning at Pittsfield Public Schools.
The three clusters that health leaders discovered have been linked to about 10 percent of the cases reported during the second wave of COVID-19 in Pittsfield. None of the clusters can be blamed for the overall surge. But, together, they contributed to the virus’ rapid transmission.
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As winter neared, Mayor Linda Tyer all but pleaded with city residents to follow public health precautions and work to keep the virus at bay.
“At the risk of sounding cliche, just say no to those indoor gatherings with people you don’t live with,” Tyer said in a Dec. 10 televised forum. “We have a common enemy, and it’s coronavirus.”
But, as the city’s public health leaders now know, some people ignored such appeals.
The virus played its deadly hand, infecting enough people to accelerate its spread throughout the community.
Superspreader case: Oct. 31, PortSmitt’s
It was the last day in business for PortSmitt’s Lakeway Restaurant. A decade had passed since Chris “Sonny” Porter and his wife, Paula, opened their restaurant, and for the past five years, Paula had been running it after the death of her husband. Together, they had built it into a popular Pittsfield hangout. But, the coronavirus pandemic was rough on business. Paula Porter held on for seven months, until announcing in October that the place would close.
In its final days, loyal patrons stopped in for one last bite, one last beer. Porter had asked people to be careful.
“We still need to operate under the safety guidelines for covid,” she wrote on social media, and recommended takeout orders. “As much as we would love to accommodate everyone we also need to ensure that we provide a safe environment for all of you and our staff.”
But, on Oct. 31, the virus nonetheless spread through PortSmitt’s on closing day. As positive cases mushroomed days later, it fell to Donnelly and her team to contact each person who tested positive and to track their close contacts.
Through interviews with the infected, Donnelly traced the source of exposure for many back to PortSmitt’s. Despite rampant transmission, people she spoke with claimed that the restaurant followed safety standards — from enforcing mask rules and distancing to limiting individual tables to 10 people.
“A few people told me, ‘You know, I didn’t even get up from my table, and even go to the bathroom or anything, and I still got it,’” Donnelly said.
But, there were pinholes in the armor. The virus slipped through. The state rule in place allowed patrons to sit at their tables maskless, but wear them when moving about.
The virus advanced through the restaurant, infecting people who worked in child care, public safety, education and the local restaurant industry, according to Donnelly and Armstrong.
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The virus sickened a teacher at Conte Community School, and her classroom switched to remote learning — a preview of events to come in the city. A police officer who came to bid PortSmitt’s adieu left with the virus.
Health officials believe that employees from 18 Degrees Emergency Childcare Center, the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires and the Berkshire Family YMCA all were infected by the virus due to PortSmitt’s final few days in business.
Contact tracers ultimately linked more than 60 coronavirus infections to PortSmitt’s, according to Donnelly. Closing day proved to be the most significant event for transmission.
“That one day was what I would call the superspreader event,” Donnelly said.
Armstrong said the city did not have evidence of any violations at PortSmitt’s. Porter declined to comment for this story.
Superspreader case: Oct. 31, Pittsfield house party
Halloween. The day when revelers inhabit alternative realities. In reality, the virus was on the move, and it brought its own brand of horror to an Oct. 31 Halloween party in Pittsfield.
Kathy Amuso said her son had been vigilant. She says he wore a mask and was cautious about social contacts. On Halloween, people “showed up” at the house he had been renting with a few roommates, the former city councilor said. In they came.
Dr. Alan Kulberg, chair of the city’s Board of Health, said about two dozen twenty-somethings took part in the festivities. There were “people in attendance who were not masked, and basically reveling. They were partying,” he said.
Through contact tracing, officials determined that the virus infected 30 people because of the Halloween event — including partygoers and their close contacts.
Amuso said her son, who is in his mid-20s, was one of them. He developed headaches, a fever, and lost his sense of taste and smell.
“He let his guard down. When I say he paid the price, he was pretty sick, so, he was his own worst critic of himself, but he left his guard down,” she said.
While elections officials worked to protect polling places for the Nov. 3 presidential election, health leaders watched as coronavirus transmission climbed in the city.
After hearing from the patron who tested positive, Cohen, the Methuselah owner, said she elected to close and enter quarantine. She said she and members of her staff had been exposed; Cohen tested positive.
Employees from Zucchini’s Restaurant & Catering and The Roasted Garlic also were at Methuselah, according to the health officials. Each of those Pittsfield restaurants later received a positive test, prompting them to shut for cleaning.
Mazzeo’s did not close after serving the family celebrating the birthday. Owner Tony Mazzeo said the family had been served in a private room and the only server assigned to that table tested negative afterward. Armstrong said no transmission occurred at Mazzeo’s.
Months of relative calm on the coronavirus front had given way.
On Nov. 5, 291 cases were reported, eclipsing the previous one-day high seen in late March, according to the city’s COVID-19 Community Impact Dashboard.
Early springtime spikes across the state led to a lockdown. School buildings closed, restaurants shuttered dining rooms, and public services moved online. But, by the time cases climbed to historic levels last month, Pittsfield Public Schools just had finished transitioning students back to classrooms, restaurants were open, and residents had grown accustomed to seeing coronavirus data consistently place the Berkshires among the lowest-risk regions of the state.
The morning of Nov. 11 marked a turning point in the city’s approach to managing the second wave. Health leaders logged on to a state database to see how many people had positive test results reported since the day before.
A dizzying number of newly reported infections appeared on the computer screen — 104 cases, more infections than were detected in June, July, August, September and October combined.
Donnelly and her team eventually figured out what they were looking at — a data dump reflecting a two-week reporting backlog from a testing site at MedExpress in Pittsfield.
The MedExpress cases produced a mountain of investigatory work for contact tracers. That work could not be done fast enough to trigger quarantines able to block transmission in classrooms, said Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis. Curtis decided to suspend in-person instruction, first at the high school, and then districtwide.
On Nov. 12, the Tyer administration said it would suspend in-person restaurant dining, giving restaurants hours notice that they would not be permitted to seat customers indoors beginning the next day.
PITTSFIELD — Almost three weeks into the suspension of indoor dining in Pittsfield, several local restaurateurs are fed up.
“We had this explosion of cases. And the only way to interrupt that transmission was to suspend, for a period of time, indoor dining,” Tyer said late last month.
Horror at Hillcrest
Health officials believe that the clusters accelerated the virus’ spread through Pittsfield in late October and early November, but those superspreader incidents do not explain it all.
The cluster cases played a role in community spread, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as people being infected with the virus within an area — including cases that can’t be pinned to a time and place.
What is known: The virus spread through the broader community. By Nov. 18, it had breached a facility that, not long after, would become the site of the deadliest coronavirus outbreak within any Berkshire County nursing home.
From the beginning of November until Nov. 18 — that was the day Hillcrest Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center on Valentine Road reported its first coronavirus infections since the pandemic began — the virus had infected 228 city residents, according to Pittsfield’s online data reporting portal.
It marked a dramatic surge; in just over two weeks in November, the city racked up about the same number of cases as were reported from March until the end of September.
And among those infected were two residents, and one staff member, at Hillcrest, the state’s second-largest nursing home. Until then, Hillcrest had managed to keep the virus out.
“It was brought in,” said Donnelly, the public health nurse. “Whether it was brought in through a visitor or staff, we don’t know.”
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On Thanksgiving Day, Tyer sent an email to area lawmakers warning of a “very serious situation” at Hillcrest — four residents of the nursing home had fallen to the virus. In just over a week, eight residents who were COVID-19-positive had died, and new infections were being reported almost daily. The death toll climbed to 41 as of this week.
The coronavirus ripped through the nursing home and left heartbreak in its wake. As of this week, the total number of residents sickened with COVID-19 at Hillcrest was 172. Nine of them still had active infections.
Lisa Gaudet, an executive with Berkshire Healthcare Systems, said Hillcrest froze admissions and stopped allowing visitors the day the first infections were detected.
The early clusters cannot be blamed directly for the Hillcrest outbreak, nor can a specific line be drawn between exposures traced to those clusters and infections among nursing home staff or residents.
Kulberg says he doesn’t know precisely how the virus breached Hillcrest.
“We do know that there were quite a few staffers who had the virus,” Kulberg told WBUR, “and the prevailing thinking is that many of these staffers became ill outside the institution, as a result of their own social connections, and thereafter brought the illness into the facility.”
All that is known, health leaders and a Hillcrest spokesperson said, is that amid surging cases in the community, the virus breached the facility and ran rampant in spite of its infection-control measures.
“When there is community spread, and you have employees who work in your building and live in the community, it comes in that way. It also can come in through visitors. So, do we know where the indicator case is? No, I don’t know that we know that,” Gaudet said.
Today, the number of new daily cases in the city has been falling since a post-Thanksgiving peak Dec. 7. Yet, new cases are being reported at a much faster clip than during the outset of the pandemic in the spring.
As of Wednesday, Pittsfield reported 901 active cases of the virus and 46 deaths.