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By Miriam Raftery

Image via KPBS, republished under Fair Use Doctrine

December 21, 2020  (San Diego) – It took a lawsuit under the California Public Records Act filed by KPBS, Voice of San Diego and the San Diego Union-Tribune to obtain data previously kept secret on the exact location of COVID-19 outbreaks, including names of businesses affected.

The data reveals many outbreaks at venues such as Walmart, Costco, Target, casinos and manufacturers/businesses. The most outbreaks, however, have been at senior living facilities/nursing homes(214 outbreaks) followed by restaurants and bars with 208 outbreaks from March through November.

The number of outbreaks doesn’t tell the whole story, however.

An outbreak is defined as three or more people with COVID-19,  not in the same household, who visited the same location over a 14-day period. An outbreak doesn’t necessarily mean that the people contracted the virus at the location, or that the facility violated any rules. The number of outbreaks alone also doesn’t reveal how many cases each outbreak had. An outbreak in a jail, student housing, nursing home or other crowded facility could include hundreds of cases, for example, while an outbreak at a smaller outlet might entail only a handful of cases.

Here are a few highlights of the KPBS reporting:

  • Restaurants had at least 208 outbreaks overall.  The number dipped to 18 in August after indoor dining was shut down, then soared to 46 after indoor dining reopened.  By November, as cases surged countywide, restaurant outbreaks rose to 60, prompting a new shutdown of both indoor and outdoor dining.  (A judge briefly allowed dining to resume, but an appeals court shut down indoor and outdoor dining again last Friday.)
  • Casinos have had at least 638 cases of COVID-19 despite intensive sanitation measures, taking temperatures of guests, masking and social distancing requirements.  Viejas and Sycuan had the most, with 166 and 155 cases respectively, but there were also significant numbers of cases at Barona, Jamul, Harrah’s, Valley View, and Pala Casino. Only Golden Acorn seems to have avoided cases, according to the county’s outbreak data.  The county has no control over casinos, which are on tribal reservations that are sovereign nations.
  • There have been 125 known outbreaks in big retail and grocery stores including Walmart, Target, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Home Depot, as well as 205 outbreaks in business with services ranging from banking to automotive repair.
  • Religious institutions accounted for 30 outbreaks and 187 total cases.
  • Salons and gyms, which have been largely shut down or operating at very limited capacity for most of the pandemic, have been responsible for very few outbreaks. Gyms had just 14, while salons and barber shops had 10. Of note, barbers and hair stylists can serve a healthcare role:  this author’s hairdresser spotted skin cancer on the scalp soon after the salon reopened after a closure earlier this year.

The County fought against releasing this data, arguing that identifying businesses with outbreaks by name might discouraging reporting outbreaks. However, failure to report outbreaks or cases is illegal. The media outlets argued that the public has a compelling right to know if they may have been exposed while shopping, dining, or working in one of these establishments.

Read the KPBS reports:

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