Donafay Collins, a popular 63-year-old commander in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office who moonlighted as a Motown DJ and taught colleagues how to ballroom dance, made his way through the crowd, resplendent in black-on-black tie and shirt.
He was happy at work, he told friends. His family was healthy. Life was good.
“What a night!” he wrote on Facebook the next day.
Less than three weeks later, at least seven partygoers were sick, down with covid-19. Dozens more were ill at the sheriff’s office. And Collins, a father of four, was dead.
Across America, gatherings such as the one in Detroit are now banned by official decree. But in the early days of the United States’ struggle with the coronavirus pandemic — and even well beyond — birthdays, weddings, dances, club meetings, concerts, and other large get-togethers continued more or less as normal. The virus was here, but the party went on.
Now the country is contending with the fallout: covid-19 clusters that were seeded as President Trump was assuring America that the virus would simply “go away” and before authorities bothered to shut down gatherings that medical experts had warned would be perfect vehicles for the disease’s spread.
“I think what we’re seeing now in a lot of places are the consequences of some of those events,” said Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage. “Once you have a large gathering, you have an opportunity for a large number of infection chains to start off in one go.”
That’s one reason New Orleans, which held Mardi Gras celebrations before bans kicked in, is “lighting up,” Hanage said. Spring breakers brazenly defying stay-at-home guidance have spawned their own clusters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a case study Wednesday showing that a person with mild respiratory symptoms who attended a funeral and birthday party may have facilitated the spread of coronavirus in Chicago.
In other places, the spread is trickier to chart. No one can say for sure when or how a person contracted the virus. And unlike countries such as South Korea, the United States had neither the testing capacity nor the broader health-care infrastructure to trace the virus’s path from individual to individual.
But experts say the halting and inconsistent manner in which gatherings were shut down undoubtedly gave the disease a head start — one that is evident now in its rampage across the nation.
From holiday celebrations among ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York to a quinceañera in small-town Nebraska to a 1970s-themed party for local politicos at Trump National Golf Club, Los Angeles, harrowing local outbreaks can often be followed back to moments of connectedness and joy.
'Really, God, why?'
The March 6 party in Detroit for current and retired sheriff’s officers came more than six weeks after the United States recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus, in Washington state. But it was four days before the virus would officially come to Michigan, and five before the state announced its first tentative steps toward social distancing — including calls for businesses, schools and other organizations to “use their best judgment” about how to keep people safe.
That was too late for Collins. He had taken to Facebook the same morning that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) urged — but did not order — people to avoid large gatherings, telling friends that he was feeling terrible and needed some “Get Well Brother” encouragement.
“This Flu is no joke!!!!” he wrote.
Others from the party replied that they were sick, too.
Tyrone Carter, a retired sheriff’s officer and current state representative, was among those who had fallen Ill. Collins had been the DJ at Carter’s retirement party and at his wedding. When the two had drilled in how to talk with a hostage-taker, Collins’s velvety voice reminded Carter of trying to negotiate with Lou Rawls.
“Thinking about him just gives me chills,” said Carter, who has since recovered from his own bout with coronavirus.
When Collins died on March 25, it was the first time Ray Washington knew someone who had died of covid-19. Washington, the deputy chief at the sheriff’s office, had an office next door to Collins’s, and the two had been close friends for over a decade.
Within days, the disease caused by the coronavirus claimed more from Washington’s life: people he had ballroom danced with for years, familiar faces from the roller-skating rink, friends from church. All shared a love for gathering together with others to communally experience an interest or a passion; all may have been done in by that love.
“We know we’re born and we’re going to die. But when you lose eight people you know well to this virus in two weeks?” said Washington, 60. “I’m a religious person, so I’m not going to be the one to question God. But you almost want to ask, ‘Really, God, why?’ ”
'It was a recipe for disaster'
Faith has been at the center of another outbreak, just outside New York City in Rockland County, N.Y. There, the coronavirus has been devastating for the area’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. And it has inflamed tensions over whether orders banning large gatherings are truly being observed.
As the festival of Purim approached in early March, Rabbi Yisroel Kahan looked at how the coronavirus was spreading elsewhere, considered how hospitals could be overwhelmed and decided a holiday celebrated with gifts of food to other people’s houses couldn’t go on. He canceled his community’s plans.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” he said. “The kids said, ‘But Daddy.’ Now they see what this is all about.”
Other rabbis hadn’t made the same call. The area that includes the hamlet of Monsey — home to a large Hasidic population — which now has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the country.
“It hit us. And it hit us ugly,” Kahan said.
The county executive, Ed Day, has called for the area to be included in a containment zone intended to halt the spread. He has also demanded that the governor issue greater enforcement powers after reports of large weddings and burials that appeared to flout rules for social distancing.
One such burial, held last week for the victim of a machete attack that is being treated as a suspected hate crime, drew dozens of people to a local cemetery. Although many donned masks, photos and video showed people standing close together — and sparked outrage on social media. Many critics were from outside the community, but some have come from within, arguing that to not follow government guidelines was, as Rabbi Yakov Horowitz put it, “madness.”“We’re a very close-knit community,” Horowitz said in an interview. “But that beautiful, beautiful blessing becomes a challenge in situations like this.”
“This is Pikuach Nefesh (life-threatening danger) of the highest order!!!” he wrote on Twitter.
Still, Horowitz said, the vast majority of people are following the rules. A friend’s father recently died and his four children all attended the burial. But only three people were allowed at the graveside. The fourth waited in the car.
Kahan said his first cousin got married last week, and the concessions to coronavirus were similar: Only the bride’s parents were allowed to attend.
“It’s a wedding that would have had hundreds,” he said. “Instead, it was on Zoom.”
'They have no voice'
As significant as gatherings have been in steering the spread of the coronavirus in large metro areas, they have been perhaps even more consequential in smaller communities where cases have popped up, seemingly at random. In the city of Grand Island, Neb. — population around 50,000 — the National Guard was called in this week to help deal with an outbreak that has included at least 13 workers at the JBS USA meatpacking factory.
The factory cases emerged roughly two weeks — or one coronavirus incubation period — after a quinceañera in a nearby village that featured pulsating music and was attended by hundreds. Among those celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday were several JBS employees, according to local nurse and Latino activist Guillermo Peña.
Peña said many of those who attended the March 14 party were afraid to speak up when they realized someone there was sick, in part out of fear of losing their jobs if they were to come down with the virus.
“Behind closed doors, these people are scared. They have no voice, but they tell me,” said Peña, who said local officials have not gone far enough to disseminate Spanish-language information about the virus.
The workers weren’t the only ones who were scared. In the village of Doniphan, where the quinceañera was held, a frenzy ensued after the local health department announced that people who had attended the party had tested positive.
Soon, residents were posting on the health department’s Facebook page asking for more information. Jay Haile, chairman of the Doniphan Village Board, said he “had phone calls up the wazoo.” Some rushed the Walmarts in surrounding towns for food and toilet paper.
“Doniphan was panicked there for a minute,” Haile said.
As of Friday, Haile said Doniphan had yet to have any residents test positive. But it had seen the effects of the scare.
Although Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) has yet to issue a stay-at-home order, local officials have effectively instituted their own. Schools closed. The guys who chat over coffee every morning at the senior center aren’t allowed to congregate there anymore. The local restaurants are offering carryout service only. Yellow signs have gone up on the baseball fields telling kids not to play there, though Haile knows they’ll probably do so anyway. Otherwise, he said “it’s a ghost town.”
'It's always the hindsight'
Halfway across the country, a community on the Pacific Coast had its own brush with covid-19 after a party appears to have spread the virus among the political elite.
The March 8 gathering — the same day that thousands ran in the L.A. Marathon — brought together around 60 people to celebrate former Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., mayor Susan Brooks’s 70th birthday. The setting was the oceanside Trump National, and the theme was the 1970s, with bell-bottoms and disco moves encouraged.
Brooks ended up sick, as did over a dozen others, including the current mayor, John Cruikshank.
“It’s always the hindsight,” he said. “We’re all singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ Even if it’s just one person who’s infected, that’s gonna get airborne. It lands on the cake. And we all eat the cake. So there you go.” Cruikshank had “four days of hell,” complete with headaches and hallucinations. But he emerged with a hard-won respect for just how serious covid-19 can be. When it came time to make policy for his upscale city of 42,000, he wasn’t going to take chances. The city’s waterside trails and open spaces, a social distancing disaster due to their popularity, would have to be closed.
To not gather, he said, goes against every instinct. But given the potential consequences, those instincts will have to be denied — at least for now.
“Humans like to be around other humans. We’re not like a grizzly bear that can walk through the woods and do what it does. We need to be around people,” he said. “Now we’re just going to have to figure out again how to do that safely.”