How, in the Gilded Age of money, social connectedness and air travel, a pandemic has spread at lightning speed.
About 50 guests gathered on March 5 at a home in the stately suburb of Westport, Connecticut, to toast the hostess on her 40th birthday and greet old friends, including one visiting from South Africa. They shared reminiscences, a lavish buffet and, unknown to anyone, the coronavirus.
Then they scattered.
The Westport soiree - Party Zero in southwestern Connecticut and beyond - is a story of how, in the Gilded Age of money, social connectedness and air travel, a pandemic has spread at lightning speed. The partygoers - more than half of whom are now infected - left that evening for Johannesburg, New York City, and other parts of Connecticut and the United States, all seeding infections on the way.
Westport, a town of 28,000 on the Long Island Sound, did not have a single known case of the coronavirus on the day of the party.
It had 85 on Monday, up more than 40-fold in 11 days. At a news conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut said that 415 people in the state were infected, up from 327 on Sunday night. Ten people have died. Westport, with less than 1% of the state's population, now makes up more than one-fifth of its COVID-19 infections with its 85 cases.
Fairfield County, where Westport is, has 270 cases, 65% of the total.
Lamont pleaded with federal officials for hospital capacity and protective gear. "I urge them: Don't think in terms of New York, think in terms of the hot spots," he said. "And that's New York City, Westchester County - and Fairfield County."
"Everywhere you think the virus is, it's ahead of you."
Science cannot definitively link those escalating numbers to New York, which now accounts for about half of the coronavirus infections in the United States. But the Westport soiree "may be an example of the kind of thing we call a super-spreading event," said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, especially since some of the partygoers later attended large social events in the New York metropolitan area.
"Some of the early cases in northern Italy were associated with small towns, and people thought, 'Oh, it's just in the small towns.' But then you suddenly find cases emerging from Milan Fashion Week and spreading internationally," Hanage said. "Everywhere you think the virus is, it's ahead of you."
The visitor from Johannesburg - a 43-year-old businessman, according to a report from South Africa - fell ill on his flight home, spreading the virus not only in the country but possibly to fellow passengers. The party guests attended other gatherings. They went to work at jobs throughout the New York metropolitan area. Their children went to school and day care, soccer games and after-school sports.
On the morning of March 8, three days after the party, Julie Endich, one of the guests, woke up in Westport with a fever that spiked to 104 degrees and "pain, tightness and heaviness like someone was standing on my chest," she later wrote on Facebook.
She knew her symptoms suggested COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but it would be four days before she could get test results confirming that she had it.
At noon that day, town and county health officials convened a coronavirus forum at the Westport Library. About 60 people attended, and many others watched on Facebook. When asked whether people, especially Westport's many older residents, should follow federal government guidance and avoid large gatherings, officials were sanguine.
"It is not out in our community that we're aware of yet," said Mark A.R. Cooper, the director of the Westport Weston Health District. "Give it some thought, but again, your risk is low."
A moderator next passed the microphone to an older man.
"How many test kits do we have in Westport now?" he asked.
"Zero," Cooper replied. "None. They're not available."
Three days later, on March 11, Cooper got a phone call: A South African businessman who had stopped in Westport for a party had fallen ill on the plane home to Johannesburg.
"I thought it was good old man flu," the businessman told The Sunday Times in South Africa, speaking anonymously in a March 15 article. Unlike in the United States, where tests remain in short supply and results come slowly, the man was tested and received word in a day. He was positive.
Middle of an epidemic
Cooper and his staff of nine dusted off their pandemic response plan and began calling party guests, identified by the Westport hosts. A number of the guests had children. Several hours later, Westport closed its schools and most public buildings. Jim Marpe, the Westport first selectman - the equivalent of a mayor - convened a hasty news conference on the steps of the Westport Town Hall.
"We'll assess the health of those individuals and try to give them some helpful advice in terms of protecting themselves and family and helping prevent further spread," Cooper told the crowd.
But, he warned, "The reality is, once it starts to spread in a community, it's beyond trying to stop it."
The Health District worked with a private company to conduct drive-through testing for party guests only on March 12. About 38 guests showed up, and more than half their tests came back positive. Endich, after days of rejected attempts, was tested at Stamford Hospital and received her positive result on March 12.
"What we were trying to do was put our arms around it quickly and snuff it out," Cooper said. "Never did we dream that in a week's time we were going to be in the middle of an epidemic."
The number of sick people in Fairfield County then soared. On March 16, Lamont closed restaurants and public buildings statewide. Even in a well-connected, affluent town like Westport, contact tracing quickly overwhelmed health officials. Beyond the 50 attendees, "there were another 120 on our dance list," some of whom probably were not at the party, Cooper said. One of the party guests later acknowledged attending an event with 420 other people, he said. The officials gave up.
"They think at least 100 times as many people are infected as what the tests are showing," Arpad Krizsan, who owns a financial advisory firm in Westport and lives in the community, said Saturday. "And everybody goes to the same four shops."
Worry, rumors and recriminations engulfed the town. Political leaders fielded hundreds of emails and phone calls from residents terrified that their children or vulnerable family members had been exposed. Who threw the party, and who attended? They wanted to know. Rumors flew that some residents were telling health officials they had attended the party so they could obtain a scarce test.
Officials refused to disclose the names of the hosts or any guests, citing federal and state privacy rules. Marpe posted a videotaped statement to the town website on March 20. "The fact of the matter is that this could have been any one of us, and rumor-mongering and vilification of individuals is not who we are as a civil community," he said.
As the disease spread, many residents kept mum, worried about being ostracized by their neighbors and that their children would be kicked off coveted sports teams or miss school events.
One local woman compared going public with a COVID-19 diagnosis to "having an STD."
"I don't think that's a crazy comparison," said Will Haskell, the state senator who represents Westport. He has been fielding frantic phone calls from constituents.
Most residents were exercising recommended vigilance, Haskell said, but one call that stuck out to him was from a woman awaiting test results whose entire family had been exposed to the virus. "She wanted to know whether or not to tell her friends and social network," he said, because she was worried about "social stigma."
Haskell, who has been delivering his grandparents' medication to their Westport doorstep and leaving it outside, was incredulous. "This is life or death," he said in an interview. "Westport really is a cautionary tale of what we're soon to see."
The party hosts remain unknown to most, though speculation is rife. Two of the guests, Endich and Cheryl Chutter, an attendee who lives in Stamford, have identified themselves.
Though she said she was "relentless" in demanding a test, Chutter was not diagnosed until March 17. She notified her son's private school, and "they sent him home in an Uber and closed the school three hours later," she said. His youth soccer league scrapped the rest of the season for 1,500 players after she informed team leaders that she had stood with other parents cheering on the sidelines before she got sick.
Chutter and Endich both emphasized the kindness of their neighbors, who spontaneously delivered food, water and encouragement. Chutter said health officials called daily to check on her. She is also aware of blaming and efforts to out the party attendees.
"It's no use pointing fingers," she said in an interview. "It's not like you're going to lock that one person up when there are millions of people in the world who have it. We're so past that."
The first partygoer to be diagnosed passed word from Johannesburg to Westport that he had fully recovered and even planned to go for a jog.
"I don't believe I'm the problem anymore," he told The Sunday Times. "It seems that the real problem is now the people who are too scared to say anything. The problem is the ignorance of the public."