Crowded Weddings Have This Resort Worker Scared to Death
“I think it’s incredibly irresponsible for the hotel to be hosting these weddings. I also can’t afford to quit.”
For two weekends in a row, a staffer at a hotel in Key West has waited on guests at large weddings, smiling from underneath her mask at often drunk attendees, some of whom traveled from out of state in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
She’s spent hours watching wealthy revelers toast to their good fortunes while forgetting about their own face coverings, she told The Daily Beast.
And she’s sick of it.
“Frankly, I'm freaking out,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity over fear of professional retaliation. “I think it’s incredibly irresponsible for the hotel to be hosting these weddings. I also can’t afford to quit.”
Two weeks ago, she served a wedding of about 65 people. The event was outdoors, but few, if any attendees wore their masks, she said. And the more people drank, the worse it got.
“They’re on the property for four days doing different events, and then people get drunk and loud and are yelling,” she said. “We’re all in masks, but people are not making good decisions. They were physically hanging on the servers, talking in their ears, arms draped on top of them, with no masks on.”
The following Saturday, she waited on another group of revelers, bridesmaids, and groomsmen—but this wedding had about 82 attendees, many of whom flew to Florida from California for the event, said the server. It rained heavily that day, so the reception was held under a tent, photos on social media appeared to confirm.
“It’s hard for me to do my job when I’m so angry with the people I’m supposed to be serving,” she said last week. “Anybody sitting at a packed bar or going to a 65-person wedding—and traveling for it—is probably not taking precautions in the days leading up to it, and those are the people I’m waiting on.”
“I know there are other resorts having weddings,” she continued. “I know people are desperate.”
She’s right. Her employer, The Perry Hotel, isn’t the point. The 40-plus-acre, marina-situated, 100-room hotel and its oceanside pools look like a lovely place to get away. And it is certainly not the only establishment accommodating events of this size—in Key West, or elsewhere.
In a statement on Tuesday, the hotel declined to provide specific information about how many weddings it has hosted since the pandemic began, their sizes, or how guests traveled to get there.
The statement did say that the hotel’s management has “taken it upon ourselves to reduce the capacity at each of our 11 waterfront venues to ensure the safety of both our guests and team members and allow for social distancing” and that they work diligently to follow all guidelines from the state and the county. It did not, however, say what those new “capacity limitations” looked like.
Written guest protocols at The Perry include mask-wearing “whenever 6 feet of social distancing is not possible,” an “attestation” that they have no COVID-19 symptoms upon arrival, and limited public restroom capacity to one person at a time. “Our property is committed to providing a memorable destination for all events while safeguarding the healthy, safety, and overall experience of our guests,” said the statement, adding that the property has also eliminated “buffets and modified catering menus to accommodate the safest consumption practices.”
“We make every effort to ensure our guests and team members are safe and healthy with daily attestations for all team members and guest attestation upon arrival,” said the statement. “The health and safety of our team members and guests are always our first priority.”
Many Key West hotels declined to answer any questions about weddings or COVID-19 this week, when prompted by The Daily Beast. The only other exception, Casa Marina Key West, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, confirmed that it, combined with a sister property The Reach Key West, had conducted more than 50 weddings since June, “most of which had taken place outdoors.” But the Casa Marina’s answer to the question of size seemed to paint a different picture than the one at The Perry.
“Wedding experiences have ranged from exclusive events for just the happy couple and micro-weddings to hybrid events and gatherings with close family and friends,” said a statement from the Casa Marina. “Our team has reimagined all our space to accommodate guests with physical distancing in place.” The statement detailed measures from signs and diagrams to screenings, clear shields, empty chairs, and more.
Outside of Key West, wedding venues all over the country have been lambasted, fined, or forced to temporarily close for holding large events after they resulted in clusters and superspreader incidents.
That includes the inn in Millinocket, Maine, which held the now-notorious August wedding that led to 170 infections, killing eight people who did not even attend. Even weddings that abided by nearly all guidelines in their region have been the sources of community outbreaks. A wedding on Martha’s Vineyard last month sparked the island’s first case cluster since the COVID-19 pandemic began, sickening five workers and four guests.
Though the wedding was apparently mask-compliant, sized appropriately, partially held outside, and distanced according to local protocols, a health official told The Daily Beast that it broke state guidelines regarding travel protocol. Namely, out-of-state visitors must quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in Massachusetts or provide evidence of a recent negative test result. That violation appeared to be the reason for the island’s outbreak, said health officials.
An Oct. 10 wedding hosted at Wintergreen Resort in Virginia led to the quarantine of 20 staff members following an outbreak, after some associates had tested positive for the virus, according to WSLS-TV. A few days after the wedding, the resort was notified that a member of the wedding party had been diagnosed with the virus.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, the state’s department of health announced last month that a person died after contracting COVID-19 from an outbreak that started at a wedding. The agency said that 674 cases and 71 outbreaks were connected to weddings—some outdoors and some indoors.
“What really gets me is that we have to go through this every time,” said Dr. Frederick Southwick—a professor of medicine at the University of Florida and an infectious disease specialist. “Why are they ignoring the events that have happened before? How could you want to risk that? Just imagine the worst. The worst could happen, and the larger the wedding, the more likely it is.”
Southwick said a mid-pandemic wedding should really only include “very immediate family,” and every single attendee should have quarantined for 14 days before the event.
He said that in any city, if local protocols allow masked gatherings outdoors in higher numbers, mixing alcohol and food into the equation will inevitably lead to masks left on tables, sloppiness, and danger.
“This is why we need a uniform set of rules for every state,” said Southwick. “The virus has specific principles that apply no matter where you are; it doesn’t change from Florida to New England. The rules should be the same.”
Key West has a mask mandate, but it’s difficult to enforce because local health departments “can’t extract any real penalties” for violating it, said Dr. Mark Whiteside, the medical director of the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, which includes Key West.
The rest of the guidelines—refraining from gatherings of more than 10 people, for example—are just state recommendations, not mandates. So technically, said Whiteside, none of the venues holding large outdoor weddings, even where mask use is sparing, are violating any orders in Florida. There are certainly no travel-related quarantine orders, said Whiteside.
“There’s this patchwork that leaves it up to the states,” said Whiteside. “We have done a very bad job of this from the get-go nationally. It’s very frustrating for us in public health. We feel like we’re limited in what we can do or if people are even going to listen to us, with these conflicting messages.”
That being said, the Key West City Commission met on Tuesday to consider imposing a nightly curfew after confirmed cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise in the Florida Keys in recent weeks, as the Miami Herald reported. (The proposal was withdrawn after local businesses opposed it.)
The emergency meeting was called after approximately 2,000 college students came down from mainland Florida to pack bars without their masks on Halloween weekend, some of whom became involved in a massive street brawl, according to Key West Police Chief Sean Brandenburg. An officer told local reporters he had to push his way through about 300 people in order to get to one crime scene downtown.
“We’ve got to tighten up right now before the holidays,” said Key West Mayor Teri Johnston, per the Herald. “We’ve got to take some additional precautions.”
As of Friday, there were 2,701 confirmed cumulative cases in Monroe County and 25 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The state’s dashboard noted the county has seen cases steadily increase since mid-October, with peaks of 51 new cases overnight on Nov. 4 and Nov. 11.
“Our positivity rate until very recently was around 5 percent but in the last week or two, it’s climbed up around 10 percent,” said Whiteside. “That’s too high.”
“But it was never really down low enough—our pandemic response nationally was really non-existent and we’re paying the price, that’s my view,” said Whiteside. “I’m personally skeptical that a vaccine is going to be useful anytime soon. The only thing you can count on are these old-fashioned public health principles.”
And for what it’s worth, Whiteside said he was not aware of any epidemiological links in cases to weddings in the area.
“The vast majority of our cases are community spread and often within families,” said Whiteside. “A lot of people have no idea where they got exposed. There’s no question that there’s a switch toward a younger population getting the virus, and a lot of those folks work in the service industry. There’s an issue with bars, restaurants, musical gigs, and concerts.”
As for the fearful Key West server, she’s uncomfortable knowing that she’s regularly interacting with people who are choosing to plan weddings or hold events that flout guidelines and best practices, even if they aren’t violating any laws. The headlines out of Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota only make those fears more profound.
“What angers me the most is this sense of privilege,” she said. “I visualize all of this through a path of service workers. Through airport workers, people that work the yachts. Everybody at the hotel, every maid, every server. We don’t have any choice but to go to work. These people chose to do this.”
And Southwick agreed with her that “right now, it’s just too dangerous” to be holding weddings that large.
“It’s all about probability,” he said. “If you have a bigger crowd or someone picks it up at the airport, you don’t have control over that. I can understand that everybody would want to drink and enjoy a wedding, but when you start drinking, things tend to fall apart.”
“What if somebody dies?” he asked. “This is life and death; it isn’t some trivial thing. That’s the issue really, and it’s just not fair to the workers to make them do that, to make them choose. You could get extremely ill, you could die.”
“I would quit,” said Southwick, acknowledging that not everyone has that option and that, as a public health expert, it’s frustrating to watch people make choices that are against public health principles. “We’re like broken records.”
As for the server, she said that she used to feel that her time at The Perry Hotel was “the best job” she’d ever had. But lately?
“They are asking a lot of us while giving us very little, and I’m trying to make good decisions for my health,” she said.