Coronavirus

Aptos New Leaf Reopens After Cluster of COVID-19 Cases

Seven employees at the grocery store tested positive for the coronavirus

New Leaf Community Markets’ Aptos location reopened Tuesday, April 28, after seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus. PHOTO TARMO HANNULA

New Leaf Community Markets reopened its Aptos location on Tuesday, April 28, after a deep clean and after five days of it being closed down due to several employees testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

New Leaf first announced the store’s initial one-day closure on its website on April 18, after the Aptos location’s first confirmed case. The store closed again a few days later, after six more employees tested positive, according to subsequent announcements from the grocery store, which was sold by a Portland-owned group to a South Korean company last year.

Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said at a press conference last week that the cases are the county’s first “cluster” of COVID-19 patients. She stressed, however, that shoppers should not be concerned if they were in the store recently. “The usual grocery shopping practices are very low risk for being exposed to COVID-19,” Newel said at the April 23 presser. “In general, a person would need to be within six feet of an unmasked person for several minutes or even longer in order to be any significant risk of getting COVID-19.”

Such contact, she added, would be unusual in a typical grocery shopping situation.

But when it came to reopening the Aptos store, the nationwide shortage of test kits complicated the situation. “New Leaf in Aptos really wanted to test all of their employees,” Newel said. “But because we haven’t validated testing in asymptomatic people, we said that was not a good idea.”

New Leaf Marketing Specialist Lindsay Gizdich tells GT via email that the store ultimately tested enough employees to ensure that “all staff working in the store have been tested for COVID-19 and cleared to return to work.” She says the New Leaf has been working with the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (HSA) to follow recommended guidance for reopening.

Health officers and New Leaf administrators asked staff members thought to have had “close contact” with the diagnosed individuals to stay home from work for 14 days from their last possible exposure. They’re supposed to monitor themselves for symptoms and stay in contact with their health care providers. New Leaf is paying all store staff while they are home, covering the costs of COVID-19 testing, and continuing to encourage staff in all locations to stay home if they do not feel well. Newel said workers who may have been exposed could become symptomatic as late as May 3.

New Leaf released more information about the case cluster than the HSA would have under health privacy guidelines. Gizdich also says that health authorities did not require New Leaf to close the store, but management chose to do so to slow the spread of disease.

Newel praised the company’s handling of the situation. “Every indication was that New Leaf was following all appropriate COVID-19 protocols,” she said. “Very forthcoming and proactive in working with us.”

As of Tuesday morning, Santa Cruz County has seen 125 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 80 recoveries and two deaths. Of those totals, 38% contracted the virus from a known case, 30% acquired it in the community—meaning it was an unknown source—and about a third were from either travel or unknown origins. Like other health officers in the greater Bay Area, Newel has signaled that she will extend the shelter-in-place order past its May 3 expiration date, while loosening it slightly and allowing for a few more activities.

Various Santa Cruz County grocery stores have experimented with a variety of rules aimed at stopping the disease spread, including limiting the number of shoppers allowed in a store at any given time and prohibiting shoppers from bringing their own reusable bags. The HSA released safety guidelines for local grocery stores, but many markets have gone beyond those suggestions and enacted their own stricter rules. County residents are also required to wear a face covering, like a gaiter, mask, or bandana, before entering a local business such as a grocery store, bank, gas station or hardware store.

Failure to comply with the order is a misdemeanor punishable by fines, jail time or both. Newel also expressed concern about the county’s supply of personal protective equipment, such as surgical masks and gowns, saying that they receive about 30% of what they order.

The county is also short on test kits for COVID-19, Newel said, but officials expect more within about two weeks.

“Testing is certainly a big issue,” Newel said. “It has been all along as you know. We are not meeting public demand at all.”

Some county residents have started to push back against the limited geographic information on where the county’s confirmed cases are. Newel said she will release more information after each jurisdiction has at least five confirmed cases.

“We are not trying to hide any information, but we are trying to respect privacy, and I hope you can all put yourself in the shoes of being a COVID-19-infected person and not wanting press or others to invade your home when you’re not feeling well. I think we can all empathize with someone who might be ill and not wanting to have extra attention or to be treated differently than anyone else in the community.”

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