2021 | Coronavirus

County says COVID-19 outbreaks such as one at Strosniders are generally low-risk

Bethesda store temporarily closed after about a dozen employees tested positive

Logo from Strosniders Hardware's Facebook page

Montgomery County health officials say outbreaks of COVID-19 such as one among employees at Strosniders Hardware’s Bethesda store generally aren’t dangerous, but people should still take them seriously.

The outbreak forced the store to close over the weekend. Customers were notified on Monday.

As of Monday evening, about a dozen employees had tested positive for COVID-19, and the outbreak was reported to the county on Tuesday.

Bill Hart III, one of the owners, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon. Claire Peterson, a spokeswoman for the store, wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that she did not know if more employees tested positive.

Carmen Clarke, an epidemiologist with Montgomery County’s health department, said in an interview Tuesday morning that there have been hundreds of investigations of COVID-19 outbreaks in the county since the pandemic began in March. She doesn’t remember any that posed an “increased risk” to customers.

The county defines “high-risk exposure” as being within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.

“What we’ve been discovering as we learn more about workplace and business place exposures is that often, there was not a risk to customers, but it’s too early to say that [in the case of Strosniders], because we’re literally investigating it right now,” Clarke said.

“Of the several hundred investigations that we’ve done to date, I can’t think of a single one where we identified increased risk to customers,” she said. “And typically, this is because the infected employees are wearing masks and staying 6 feet away.

“And if you think about a hardware store, typically you’re not going to be talking to someone for 15 minutes. You go in, you make your purchase and you leave. And that’s how we define a high-risk exposure.”

Hart had said on Monday that most of the workers who tested positive were office employees, but some worked on the retail side.

Clarke said that as part of the investigation, contact tracers talk to employees to determine their roles in the store, which will determine whether there was a chance of high-risk exposures.

“So, if you’re a cashier, most purchases don’t take 15 minutes. So, we’re gonna be pretty comfortable saying, ‘although the person working with you in the cashier line might have been around you for more than 15 minutes, customers generally are not,’” she said.

During the contact tracing portion of an investigation, county officials try to determine where a person was around someone who was infected. Clarke said this involves contacting the people who test positive.

If there were no way to contact them, the county would consider putting out an announcement about the outbreak.

“To date, we’ve never had [an outbreak] where we’ve identified people who we had no other way to get a hold of than to put out an announcement or to try to find them some other way,” she said. “That’s not to say this won’t be the first, but we’ve definitely had outbreaks similar to this one. They just haven’t resulted in us thinking [customers] were at increased risk from shopping.”

The county’s Alcohol Beverage Services (ABS) department, on its own, has notified the community when there are positive tests at county liquor stores, county health department spokeswoman Mary Anderson said on Tuesday.

Montgomery County has had 48,351 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

The number of cases and deaths has risen sharply during the past few months. The spike in cases led the county to reinstitute an indoor dining shutdown on Dec. 15.

Clarke said there isn’t “zero risk” from going to stores such as Strosniders, but it’s generally low as long as there isn’t prolonged contact with an infected person.

“My advice would be … this is not unexpected and there’s a lot of communitywide transmission going on, and this happens to be a location where we know, because it’s in the media, that there were infected workers. At this point, I have no reason to think anyone was at risk for increased risk for infection,” she said.

Asked whether people who went to Strosniders in the past week should get tested for the virus, Clarke said they don’t need to, but in general, she encourages everyone to get tested when they can.

“But I don’t want to make the blanket suggestion that [Strosniders customers] should, because it implies that we’re very concerned about that area of transmission. I think it’s up to the individual,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com