Multnomah County Leaves Revelers to Fend for Themselves in the Omicron Wave

The only reason Portlanders learned of the first significant outbreak in a reopened club scene was because workers blew the whistle.

One by one, workers at a Southeast Portland club told each other they’d tested positive for COVID-19.

In a group chat, set up after a positive test in the workplace in October 2021, the bartenders and security workers at the club, 45 East, texted each other the bad news. In all, six workers had tested positive for COVID-19 by Dec. 21. They had all worked the previous Friday and Saturday nights.

As many as 1,200 people were on the club’s dance floor those nights, photos show, partying to the dubstep beats of that night’s headline DJ, Blunts and Blondes.

The only reason those Portlanders learned of the first significant outbreak in a reopened club scene is because workers blew the whistle. Afraid that exposed customers would bring the virus back home to their families over a holiday weekend, three workers spoke to WW, which published word of the outbreak Dec. 26.

Club management publicly confirmed the positive tests only after WW inquired. After the story appeared on wweek.com, 45 East manager Peter Webb issued a statement saying the club had followed all COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. (He declined to respond to further questions.)

In at least one regard, he’s clearly correct: No federal, state or county rules required the club to inform patrons of the outbreak. Instead, Oregon officials have offered a collective shrug on notifying the public of outbreaks in social spaces.

“This outbreak shows us clearly that we cannot trust bar owners to notify employees and customers of such an incident,” says Amanda Mays, a former employee of 45 East who says her onetime manager asked her to fill in for workers too sick to complete a shift. “There needs to be a protocol and oversight in place to mandate employers to report such incidents for the safety of everybody.”

Multnomah County officials say there is no need to require disclosure to the public: Anyone who goes to a restaurant, club, bar or gym this winter does so at their own risk. “Anyone who spends time in a public indoor setting, or a busy outdoor setting, should assume they’ve been exposed to the virus,” says county spokeswoman Kate Yeiser.

That might surprise a lot of Portlanders, and 45 East workers did not assume clubgoers would understand that. Instead, they decided that knowing about the outbreak might motivate their patrons to do what workers had done: get tested.

Notifying the public of an outbreak “is especially important,” says Oregon State University professor Chunhuei Chi, because “we are dealing with the most contagious variant so far.”

Chi, who teaches health management and policy, points to international models for alternatives: Taiwan surged past the U.S. in getting more people vaccinated, and it requires people to scan their phones when entering public places so they can be notified in the event of a positive test.

“My assessment is that our public health infrastructure actually is not as strong as we would like it to be,” Chi says. “If we had enough resources, enough infrastructure, we would have done a much better job in contact tracing and informing the public about the risk of exposure.”

Eric Bowler, who owns the Old Town nightclub Tube, wants such a mandate. “If one bar requires vaccine cards, it just pisses people off and they just go next door,” he says. “It doesn’t do anything to reduce hospitalizations.”

Two years into the pandemic, with a new Omicron variant that is milder but more contagious, it’s a confusing time. Other cities—Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—have vaccine mandates for indoor dining and other higher-risk indoor settings. Not Portland.

In fact, even as 45 East management kept mum about the worker outbreak, it was doing more than local governments required to slow Omicron’s spread. The club has an entrance policy requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test in the past 24 hours.

Vaccines are no longer likely to completely halt the spread of the disease. But they do make it unlikely infection will result in hospitalization or death. At this point in the pandemic, public health officials are less worried about individual risk and more concerned about vulnerable individuals, schools closures, and hospitals again being overwhelmed.

Vaccine mandates would prevent some spread and make it less likely the unvaccinated would be directly affected.

Employers are required to report five or more cases to the Oregon Health Authority, which issues a weekly report of workplace outbreaks. It’s not yet clear if 45 East fell under that requirement or followed it.

Chi says he also favors instituting vaccine mandates as other cities have done, but he adds there still needs to be a massive outreach to the unvaccinated.

County officials tell WW they are concentrating on getting people vaccinated rather than creating new rules. Since Dec. 1, just over 18,000 county residents have gotten a first dose, roughly a third of them children under 18, according to OHA data.

“Right now, the county is focusing our resources on increasing access to vaccines and boosters to the most vulnerable members of our community, while also encouraging the broader community to get vaccinated and boosted,” says County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “I will consider mandates when we believe that we’ve exhausted the effectiveness of voluntary approaches to getting more people vaccinated.”

45 East did a lot of things right. But as with much else in the pandemic, the club showcases the practical problems of enforcing social distancing among young people who’ve been cooped up for the better part of two years.

In interviews, 45 East employees say high-volume, alcohol-fueled parties are difficult places to enforce the statewide indoor mask mandate. “I walk up and down the bar every night, asking customers to put on their masks,” says one bartender, who asked for anonymity for fear of being fired. “You have to argue with some of them and have some people thrown out because they refuse.”

As for the club’s vaccination rule: Employees assume some patrons are lying to them. “It’s already hard to spot a fake ID,” says the same bartender, “and it is quadruply hard to spot a fake vaccine card.” Bowler, too, says vaccination cards are easily forged. “We’ve gotten no instruction or resource from the county on how to verify vaccine cards,” he adds.

For some of the club’s workers, the outbreak signaled how vulnerable they are to possible retaliation from managers. Mays, a 10-year service industry veteran, says even calling in sick at many bars carries the risk of not being selected for future shifts.

In the past week, she and others reached out to state Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) to ask for stricter rules on COVID safety and disclosure at nightclubs. “Obviously, what happened to these workers is not good,” Nosse says, “and I’m looking into it.”

“I’ve never had a single day or shift of paid sick leave in 10 years of working in bars,” Mays tells WW. “And then I thought, there needs to be a union for that.”

Rachel Monahan contributed reporting to this story.

Correction:

The prior COVID-19 incident occurred in October of 2021, not 2020, and a single worker at the club tested positive for COVID-19. It was not an outbreak. WW regrets the errors.

This story initially misspelled the name of the former bartender who described being asked to fill a shift at Club 45. She is Amanda Mays, not Amanda Hays. WW regrets the error.