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COVID Outbreak at Salish Lodge and Spa Highlights Continuing Hospitality Concerns

The outbreak occurred mainly among the kitchen staff

A hamburger with a side of fries at Salish Lodge and Spa
Salish Lodge and Spa in Snoqualmie recently closed after a COVID-19 outbreak.
Salish Lodge and Spa [Official]

On September 30, King County’s public health department revealed that Salish Lodge and Spa — a popular vacation resort in Snoqualmie — had a major COVID-19 outbreak, with at least 23 employees and two guests testing positive for the virus.

The news highlighted two continuing pandemic concerns for the hospitality industry: most of the cases were among the kitchen staff, and there was a lag between when positive cases were discovered and when the cases were reported to the public.

On the first point, per a KUOW report, King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said that the positive cases at Salish showed just how dangerous kitchens can be as a place where “people spend a lot of time clustered together with less than great ventilation and don’t always wear masks.”

However, Gabriel Spitzer, a spokesperson for Public Health - Seattle & King County, clarified to Eater Seattle, “It’s important to note that, while a majority of the cases in this outbreak are food service workers, we cannot say with certainty how much of this transmission took place in the workplace. Levels of COVID in the surrounding community have been rising, and cases have been reported at other nearby businesses, making it very difficult to pinpoint the place someone was exposed.”

Transmission within kitchen environments has, of course, long been a worry among restaurants and bars since the spring, when COVID cases in the Seattle area first spiked. Even with the long shutdown for takeout and delivery only, and the subsequent reopening to 50 percent capacity in June, there were several cases of staff members at area establishments testing positive for the virus (and likely many more that weren’t publicly announced).

COVID guidelines for restaurants and bars posted on the King County public health website (based on state mandates) include checking to see if employees have any signs or symptoms at the start of their shift, making sure workers wear masks at all times, and ensuring six feet of social distancing, except for unavoidable, short-term exposures.

When such distancing is not possible for a specific task, establishments must use other means to protect staff, like installing barriers and reducing the number of employees in the place at one time, even if it means staggering hours.

Alan Stephens, general manager of Salish Lodge and Spa, tells Eater Seattle, that “the kitchen team members were following all state-mandated protocols for food service and hospitality.”

But the outbreak at the resort also raised more alarms about transparency when it comes to COVID cases in the hospitality industry. The health department learned about the first case through contact tracing September 18, then found out about additional positive tests over the next 10 days, before publicly revealing the extent of the outbreak September 30. Only then did Salish announce it would voluntarily close down the resort for a cleaning and disinfection process until October 8.

In a recent Seattle Times report, guests who stayed at the hotel expressed their anger and frustration that the Salish Lodge and Spa still encouraged them to enjoy sit-down dining, days after it already knew about the positive COVID test and the possibility of an outbreak.

“Every positive case of COVID-19 among team members was immediately reported to King County Public Health,” says Stephens. “Per our understanding of the guidance from King County Public Health, Salish Lodge and Spa followed the protocol of contact tracing to identify ‘close contacts,’ defined as ‘being within six feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes.’ Based upon our contact tracing, we did not discover any interactions between infected team members and guests that qualified as ‘close contact.’”

Stephens added that the public health department never mandated the resort’s closing, but Salish closed out of abundance of caution. In its announcement about the resort, King County’s health department said that anyone who stayed at the resort from September 16 through September 30 should get tested for COVID-19, monitor for symptoms, and avoid close contact with others. Those who visited during this time should also quarantine and stay away from others for 14 days.

“We regret that we did not contact guests earlier in the process — we contacted thousands of our guests over the past week and are addressing each concern individually,” Stephens says. “Our outreach to our customers has far exceeded health agency guidelines.”

Therein may lie the problem. There were 12 full days between when the first COVID case was discovered and when the health department and resort made public announcements. That’s not a great look in a time when transparency about positive tests within workplaces has come under increased scrutiny, particularly in the hospitality industry. So, if Salish was following all the health agency guidelines to the tee, then maybe those guidelines need reexamining.

As has been discussed before in the press, there seems to be very little consistency around how Seattle restaurants and bars deal with positive cases, since many business owners feel they’re left to police the mandates themselves. Some choose to reveal immediately when there’s a positive test (or even just an exposure, in the case of Beacon Hill restaurant Homer); others, like Salish, wait before making announcement (or don’t make one at all, if not required).

With Gov. Jay Inslee’s October 6 announcement lifting certain mandates on restaurants and bars, COVID protocols in the hospitality industry will no doubt remain in the spotlight. Should there be more outbreaks like the one at Salish Lodge and Spa, it wouldn’t be a surprise if restrictions tightened up again.