Sailing-themed invitations were screen-shotted on Snapchat. Parents wrote cryptic Facebook posts. Pink formal dresses popped up on Instagram.
But the Rolla residents who saw those posts likely didn’t put the full picture together. Nor could they have predicted the extent to which the event—an unsanctioned homecoming dance at a local steakhouse—would affect the community, forcing the health department to devote all its resources to one fiasco and nudging the high school back to full-on virtual learning.
This week, Ashley Wann, health director of the Phelps-Maries County Health Department, told The Daily Beast that up to 200 Rolla High School students—and “numerous” parents—gathered indoors at Matt’s Steakhouse on Saturday, Nov. 7. Wann called it “a parent-organized event,” and the department has said students from the freshman through senior classes were present.
“The individuals that we have been in contact with all report no masks were worn and that masks were made optional by the event organizers,” Wann told The Daily Beast.
When the inevitable COVID-19 cases started popping up, Wann said her department’s job was made harder by the fact that there was no list of attendees.
This wasn’t an accident: The health department was told “by community members and those in attendance” that organizers intentionally hid the number and identity of those in attendance to avoid contact tracing in the event of an outbreak, according to Wann. That account of deliberate epidemiological obfuscation was bolstered by a handful of accounts from residents.
As of Friday, there were seven cases tied to the event and several others at Rolla High School among students and staff members, Wann told The Daily Beast. She was not optimistic about her department’s ability to link all relevant cases.
The story out of Rolla mirrored many others throughout the country, where health departments face an uphill battle against COVID-19 skepticism and the politicization of mask-wearing—and the potential for one event to spark massive outbreaks. But it stood out for what residents described as a purposeful effort to ward off health officials’ scrutiny even as the pandemic’s third wave breaches new frontiers of horror nationwide.
“We know that we will not be able to obtain a true picture of the impact this event had on our community,” Wann said. “Some individuals will choose not to report symptoms, some will choose not to be tested, and some may remain asymptomatic and spread it to others unknowingly, so a link back to the dance will not be made. Unfortunately there will be individuals that will be untruthful and intentionally withhold information, which is not unusual to contact tracing in general.”
Photos tagged at Matt’s Steakhouse on Instagram this week showed high schoolers in formalwear—black sequins, vests, and heels—smiling wide without masks in a room decorated with gold and blue balloons. One caption read: “Had to get one last party in before we go back to lockdown.”
But who would plan such an event in the middle of a pandemic, with local cases already overwhelming the public health department and superspreader events making news all over the country? Interviews with residents and a review of social-media posts suggest this was no simple case of kids being kids.
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“So my friend and I did a thing yesterday,” local parent Cory Coates posted on Facebook after the dance. “We did a REALLY big thing. And we had a lot of support. And a lot of help. And a lot of really happy kids. And it was kind of amazing. And I really want to recognize and thank these people but I can’t. But my heart is full and I think the kids are happy and it was worth it. I would do it again. I’m happy and sad at the same time and I want normalcy. I think we delivered this for one night. #HOCORHS2020.”
That hashtag appeared to mirror the slogan “HOCO: Sailing out of 2020,” which was featured in a screenshot from Snapchat shared with The Daily Beast on Friday that showed details of the event over a nautical motif and asked parents who wanted to contribute or help with organizing to contact Coates.
“Let’s do this thing!” said the post.
In a text exchange with The Daily Beast on Friday asking about the event, Coates said she didn’t “have any comments at this time.” She neither confirmed nor denied planning the event herself but added: “If you are going to do the article, I do suggest you look into all the HS activities the week leading to the dance and community events.”
Coates noted that several events, including boys and girls basketball and wrestling tryouts, powder puff practice, and games happened the same week as the dance.
As of Friday, Rolla’s Phelps County—pop. 44,789—had a cumulative total of 1,214 confirmed cases and 34 deaths from the coronavirus, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. The county had an average of 28 new daily cases over the past seven days, a figure that appeared to be increasing. The most recent dates for overnight cases were Monday and Tuesday, which had 70 new cases and 30 on each day, respectively.
Craig Hounsom, Superintendent of Rolla 31 School District, announced in an email to staff and parents on Thursday evening—hours after news first broke of the dance and the related cases—that Rolla High School would switch to “full virtual learning” from Nov. 16 through Nov. 23. The email, obtained by The Daily Beast, cited “a sharp increase in COVID positive cases, high numbers of student quarantines due to internal and external contacts, high school absentee rates due to sickness, and the increasing number of quarantined staff members.”
While teens are less likely than older adults to die from the virus, they can still deal with long-term, debilitating health complications and are just as likely to transmit it to others. And large events can kill those who aren't present, like a notorious August wedding in Maine that led to 170 infections, killing at least 7 people who did not even attend.
And even if the dance didn’t cause all the new infections, it has thrown a serious wrench in local efforts to keep the town, which calls itself “the middle of everywhere,” from drowning in cases of the deadly virus.
“All case investigation and contact tracing efforts have been forced to focus solely on this event, pushing us even further behind with contacting new positive cases,” said a statement released this week from the health department. “This event has the potential to be a superspreader event with more cases expected over the next several weeks. Actions and events such as this are reckless and go against all public health mitigation strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the entirety of the community.”
Highlighting that tension—and the difficult task facing the health department—one local woman claimed in a series of Facebook posts that her daughter “did not attend the dance” but that she had added the health department number into her phone in order to avoid their calls.
“I’m sorry, but if you’re OK with your kid ratting other kids out to the health department for attending a private event, you are the bigger problem… SMDH SOCIALISM,” she wrote. “I don’t have to answer any of their questions. F#%* them.”
“This is how it all starts,” she continued. “Dividing, labeling. Your home raided in the middle of the night. Don’t think it could happen here? Think again. The difference is, our citizens are armed, according to their constitutional rights.”
As for Coates, when asked about whether the parents who planned the event opted not to keep track of attendees in order to make contact tracing harder, she responded that “the event was planned following what the HS typically does at dances. A list of students who attend is not a normal practice for the HS.”
When pressed on whether she or other parents engaged in an effort to mislead or evade the health department, she replied, “I’m not going to respond to accusations.”
Rolla High School principal Jim Pritchett did not respond to messages and emails requesting comment on Friday about the reasoning for the school closure or the usual protocols for school dances.
A staff member at the red-brick Rolla High School—who asked to remain anonymous over fear of professional retaliation—said that tickets are usually sold at dances, in part to keep track of which students are in attendance. But that staff member said Coates had a point about the number of recent school events.
“She’s not wrong,” said the staff member. “We had football the whole season. The kids came and practiced every day. There were masks and distancing, but you can’t distance that much while you’re playing a sport, so I kind of agree with her on that. But at least at the school sanctioned things, we have protocols.”
“They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds. They don’t really know better,” they said, noting that many of the students who attended the dance were back at school on Monday. “But I’m disappointed in the parents for putting everyone at risk like this.”
“And now we’re going virtual,” the staff member continued. “They hated it when we went hybrid, but now it’s their fault.”
Emails and phone messages for Matt’s Steakhouse were not returned this week, but the owner did comment on Facebook in response to community complaints, writing that “an event was held here that was put on by a group of parents.”
“We were not participants and did not work the event,” said the owner. “Many of our staff do wear masks. It is their choice. Business owners are struggling to find a balance that works for each of them, us included.”
There is currently no city-wide mask mandate. Though the district has asked students to wear them, the staffer at the high school told The Daily Beast that they have seen students refusing to wear masks, or wearing them inappropriately, hanging from their ears or under their chins.
Deanne Lyons, a member of the Rolla City Council representing the city’s sixth ward, told The Daily Beast on Friday that the city plans to discuss the issue of a mask-mandate again on Monday. But in past meetings, they said, that went poorly.
“The night I was sworn in, someone showed up comparing mask mandates to the Star of David,” said Lyons, “insinuat[ing] that the council members were Nazis for having any restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID.”
“That was in June,” they added. “The last meeting had someone citing a right-wing conspiracy website about masks making our lives worse.”
As for the dance, Lyons believes adults who took part in the event “have zero excuse.” They told The Daily Beast on Thursday that it was “bewildering” to imagine “people really would risk their own children and other people’s children and our entire community for a dance, a dance that could be made up at another time, when this isn’t happening.”
Wade Hawks, a 22-year-old Rolla native and graduate of the high school currently studying at the Rolla-based Missouri University of Science and Technology, told The Daily Beast he believes the parents and the steakhouse should be held accountable for “endangering our community.”
“I know a lot of people that would have run into or been in contact with these people through their work,” said Hawks. “The people that are now going to be affected are still not going to take it seriously and it’s going to be a plague in our little town.”