CHATHAM — Town officials took up a request from residents to do more to protect them from exposure to coronavirus following a second outbreak of confirmed COVID-19 cases among restaurant employees.
Whether it is posting signs on restaurant doors warning patrons or sending all employees for immediate testing, “it would be negligent not to take a further step,” resident Elaine Gibbs said during a public forum Monday.
The Board of Selectmen hosted the forum in collaboration with the Board of Health after Chatham ended up in the state’s “red zone” and the Chatham Squire had seven employees test positive for coronavirus.
“Boards of health have shut down restaurants for far less,” Gibbs said during the remote forum. “Salmonella or some kind of problem and they make everybody get tested.”
Chatham resident Gloria Freeman said “public health concerns and protections” should be the town’s top priority. “Can Chatham provide more stringent regulations to protect the public health than the state’s regulations?,” she asked.
The state requires restaurants to report cases of COVID-19 among its staff to municipal health officials, but not to the public, said Robert Duncanson, director of the Chatham Department of Natural Resources. He said the Chatham Squire followed state guidelines and appropriate protocols when it reported one case to the town Aug. 30 and closed the restaurant that evening for a deep cleaning by ServPro.
The restaurant reopened for outdoor dining only and sent employees for testing Aug. 31, closing from Sept. 1-3 for further deep cleaning after receiving word that more employees tested positive, Duncanson said.
“They did indicate to us that none of the employees that tested positive (after the first case) were in the restaurant” the Monday of Aug. 31, Duncanson said.
If Chatham imposed stricter regulations than what the state requires, it could be a first in Massachusetts, officials said.
During a joint meeting of the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Health Tuesday that addressed concerns brought up in the public forum, Chatham Town Counsel Patrick Costello said not even Boston has adopted stricter standards than the state in dealing with restaurants.
That doesn’t mean it is not possible, he said.
Local boards of health are encouraged to work with the state Department of Public Health, but they also have the authority to adopt and enforce “reasonable health restrictions,” Costello said. He said he could see a situation in which a health board could step up enforcement if it faced a particularly burdensome issue due to the pandemic.
But he said he doesn’t think that’s the case now.
Duncanson said Monday that the cases that sent Chatham into the state’s red zone didn’t even have much to do with the outbreak at the Squire. Only one of the employees who tested positive resides in Chatham. The other six are from Harwich, South Yarmouth and other towns, Duncanson said.
“It just happened to be a coincidence” that seven Chatham residents tested positive for coronavirus around the same time, Duncanson said. He said one of the Chatham residents who tested positive was in college in central Massachusetts.
The state appeared to use population figures of 5,910 and 5,850 to get an incidence rate of 8.5% and end up in the highest risk of the four color-coded designations, Duncanson said.
Chatham officials said the summer population is between 20,000 and 25,000 people.
Using the population figure of 12,250 — two times the official 2010 census figure of 6,125 Chatham residents — the incidence rate per 100,000 drops to 4.1, which puts Chatham in the lowest risk category, the gray zone, Duncanson said. He said state officials are expected to make a statement about the placement of Chatham and other seasonal communities in the red zone later this week, possibly Wednesday.
The Chatham Squire case is the second cluster of coronavirus cases associated with the local restaurant industry this summer. There have been 13 positive cases associated with a July 12 house party in town attended by restaurant employees.
When it comes to reporting cases of coronavirus at business establishments to the public, “HIPAA laws are important,” Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Shareen Davis said. “Privacy is important.”
But Gibbs said during Tuesday’s remote meeting that HIPAA considerations do not apply to the Squire outbreak.
“We’re not asking for a disclosure of individuals,” Gibbs said, elaborating on her comments during Monday’s public forum, when she said she would have been “very, very upset” to learn that a restaurant where she had dined had cases of coronavirus among the staff.
“How can you open in that situation? This is a pandemic. I think this is a pretty compelling situation,” Gibbs said Tuesday.
Chatham Health Agent Judith Giorgio said during Monday’s public forum that the Health Department responds mainly to coronavirus complaints but also has made a number of unannounced visits to restaurants.
“We did not cite anybody,” she said. “It was mostly educational.”
Health inspectors have in a few instances reminded restaurants to spread their outside tables farther apart, Giorgio said.
Follow Cynthia McCormick on Twitter: @Cmccormickcct.