Last Updated: Wednesday, 1:15 p.m.
Palm Coast was the site of a rare Covid-19 “superspreader” event on a single night in late August. It claimed the lives of two people, with a third in hospice, and infected dozens of people, according to Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder.
The superspreader was traced back with near certainty to karaoke night at the Palm Coast Social Club on Aug. 28, where people did not abide by social distancing or mask-wearing rules, and where singers belted song after song, without masks, despite studies that have pointed to such things as choir practice as cause for a disproportionate number of infections.
Snyder first revealead the superspreader on Tuesday in an interview. On Wednesday, he amended the findings, saying one of the two deaths was associated with the same club, but from an earlier event.
“This is actually a pretty dramatic event, it’s almost publishable, it’s that dramatic–50 people from one event, including deaths. It’s really a tragedy,” says Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia health departments and a rigorous analyst of the latest covid-related medical literature. “It’s certainly profound ignorance of the risk. The public may not be aware of what a risk this is. I thought they did, but maybe not. I know that churches are not having singing in their services because of this kind of stuff. I don’t know if people realize it, but karaoke is as bad or worse, because they do it for a long period of time, you’re in a closed space.”
The superspreader is illustrating a growing consensus in scientific tracts about how, in a disproportionate number of cases, a small number of people is responsible for infecting large groups. Getting a better handle on that may help public health and other officials more effectively target the sort of events or situations that cause those larger outbreaks–like social events and gatherings–and thus more strategically or surgically limit those events, or make them more safe, without resorting to more wholesale bans or closures.
“This karaoke thing is a classic example, little old Flagler County has its own superspreading event,” Bickel said. “Most places will never have an event this dramatic.”
The superspreader is contributing to an ongoing spike in Flagler County cases driven by social clubs, K-12 schools and assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Grand Oaks Health and Rehabilitation Center and Tuscan Gardens assisted living in Palm Coast both saw large spikes of cases among residents and staff. The school district has confirmed at least 47 cases, between students and staff, since school reopened on Aug. 24 (four days before the superspreader event at the social club), including 20 cases at Old Kings Elementary, 11 at Flagler Palm Coast High School, and seven at Imagine School at Town Center, the charter school.
The spike has resulted in nearly 400 cases since the beginning of the month, and a current positivity rate above 10 percent, ending Flagler County’s long streak as the state’s county with the lowest rate of covid infections, out of 67 counties. The county’s rate of infection in the last seven days places it 39th in the state.
But no spike anywhere in the county approaches the numbers triggered by the superspreader at the social club.
The Social Club of Palm Coast at 51 Old Kings Road North was previously known as the Columbian Club of Flagler County, and the Knights of Columbus before that. It was shut down on Sept. 1 “Due to renovations and deep sanitization,” a note on Facebook, echoed by a note on its front door, states, with no mention of the covid outbreak. The club has hired ServePro to conduct weekly $450-deep cleanings that will continue after its scheduled reopening on Sept. 28.Snyder summed up the toll of the superspreader so far as “dozens of cases, two deaths, one person in hospice, a few hospitalizations, and additional cases are surfacing related to this club.” The counting is not over. “Many members of their club also belong to the Italian American Club, the fishing club and all the other clubs, but we talked to a lot of people, and it all stems back to the event on the 28th.” He added: “No one is singling out anyone. This is what the case investigation, contact tracing revealed, that common link in terms of the whereabouts of the individuals all tracing back to that one karaoke night.”
Other social clubs have continued operating, though April said they are barring entry to members of the Palm Coast Social Club.
A person familiar with events at the Palm Coast Social Club wrote FlaglerLive on Sept. 1 in an alert of what the person had witnessed there during an event for the Disabled American veterans. “The Flagler Sports Fishing Club held a fundraiser for them on August 21 at the Palm Coast Social Club,” the author of the email, who asked not to be identified, wrote. “It was packed — cheek by cheek, maybe 200 people, almost no masks, although people were required to wear them into the building. As soon as they came in, they took them off. I and two other people asked the titular head of the DAV to ask that the organizers make an announcement to keep masks on. A woman refused to do that. She is now dead. She had had symptoms for 10 days, had gone to the Palm Coast Social Club the night before for something (bingo?), and then to this. She checked into the hospital the next day, and has now passed away. Her husband is at Flagler Hospital and prognosis for him is not good.” (FlaglerLive verbally shared the email with Snyder at the time.)
Snyder stressed: “Basically we want to continue to implore this group and other social clubs to please practice social distancing and mask wearing when indoors especially.”
The August 28 event was headlined by Mike Kohn, a popular entertainer. “Come for Dinner, Drinks and Dance,” the club had advertised, $6 for members, $8 for non-members. Social club officials tried to disperse the high number of people at karaoke night, but they wouldn’t disperse. “We opened up the big room and tried to have people go into the big room and they didn’t want to go,” says Gloria April, recently elected secretary of the social club. “They wanted to stay in the smaller area.”
A 69-year-old woman died on Aug. 31 and a 74-year-old man died on Sept. 13 from covid-related infections traced back to the social club events, Snyder said. On Wednesday, Snyder said the 69-year-old woman had not attended the Aug. 28 event, according to her daughter, but had been at Social Club of Palm Coast events in previous days. A Department of Health epidemiologist said that while the department could not confirm it, the account surrounding the DAV event and the subsequent death appears to tie the 69-year-old woman’s death to those events.
That brings Flagler County’s covid-related death tally to 23, not including two or three more individuals who died in Flagler of covid-related causes but were not Flagler residents, in a week when the nation’s covid death toll surpassed 200,000, and Florida’s had exceeded 13,500.
“I know of two people that have passed away but I’m not sure which ones they’re talking about,” April said of the deaths. “I know one of them was in the hospital and was being treated and was not on a blood thinner and threw a clot. The clot is what killed her. She was being treated for Covid, but because she wasn’t on a blood thinner it threw a clot to her heart. She had no underlying conditions that I know of. I had just been talking to her a few hours before. Text messaging.”
“I’m devastated that it’s our club that’s being pushed out there because we were so careful, and it was just this one night that it happened,” April continued. “It could have happened any place, not just ours. I’ve done everything that we can to prevent anything in the future.”
The club has a paid membership of 294 (single members pay $35 for a year’s membership, couples pay $55). It’s not clear how many people were there on karaoke night. The club was supposed to abide by a 50-percent capacity rule, and stresses that “we practice social distancing and face masks here.”
That night, many people did not. “Almost everybody that entered wore a mask,” April said, but once they started eating and drinking, the masks would come off, then patrons would start walking around without masks on, and of course there was the singing. It’s very difficult to get people to keep their mask on,” she said.
Social distancing, too, was an issue. “One table had 12 people at it and she tried to get the people to not sit, to disperse at that table, to bring it down to 6,” April said, referring to a club employee, “I know the governor says 10, or CDC says 10, but people want to sit together. You know, you can’t shoot people.”
When the club reopens, April said, patrons will see a different place, with carpeting removed, tables spread out, and the entire facility sanitized. “The big thing is making people wear their masks and not congregating in big groups,” she said. “We’ve taken it very, very seriously. Some of the other clubs are against us, and we know that, because we had this covid outbreak that we tried to prevent.” She added: “Our number 1 priority is making sure we’re safe for everybody and this outbreak has made us more aware and proactive in making sure it’s a safe environment. I think we’re going to be a safer club than any other club.”
Editor’s Note: Subsequent to the article’s publication, Gloria April issued an email to her membership disputing the accuracy of the account. April’s email is misleading.
It contradicts what she had said during the interview with FlaglerLive. She wrote that “The night was not a Karaoke night it was a night of singing from Action Performance.” In fact, April told FlaglerLive that the event featured Mike Kohn. The club’s own calendar for April lists Kohn for that evening, and Kohn routinely hosts Karaoke nights at the club.
April claims in her email that there were “about 40 people and masks were enforced.” But when asked during the interview how many people there were that evening at the club, she said she wasn’t there, but knew that there was a sizeable enough crowd that, as she noted in the email, the doors to the larger hall were opened and people encouraged to go there. What she does not note in her email but told FlaglerLive was that people refused to go into the larger hall. She also conceded during the interview quite clearly that after coming in with masks, people would take them off not just to eat and drink, but kept them off as they wandered about the club.
April claims the club was notified of just two cases. We are relying on Health Department data, based on contact tracers’ investigations, when reporting the much larger numbers. While the club may have been told of a few numbers initially, the Health Department was still tallying new cases connected to the Social Club of Palm Coast as late as Wednesday.
“The article has done damage to the club reputation but we are strong and will survive this as we have other events in the past,” April wrote her membership. The “damage to the club,” however, is the result of what may be the most serious outbreak of covid-19 in the region since the pandemic began, according to the Health Department, and, as the department’s Bob Snyder repeatedly stressed, the club’s failure to enforce masking and social distancing protocols. While Snyder–and the article–initially tied the entire outbreak to the Aug. 28 event, Snyder has since clarified that, in fact, several events at the social club contributed to the outbreak. The five evenings’ events that week at the club included line dancing on Monday, karaoke with Kohn on Tuesday, poker and trivia on Wednesday, karaoke and line dancing on Thursday, and bingo and Kohn again on Friday.
As one commenter below noted of that Friday, “My Mom was also there that night..sang her first Karoke song ever in her 83 years and was so proud..she got a standing ovation. She’s been in Flagler Advent for almost 3 weeks on highflow heated oxygen and they want to put her on hospice tomorrow. She won’t make it for more that a few hours after they unplug her. Also from living with me..I tested positive also.”