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Coronavirus surge linked to restaurants in Mammoth Lakes lands county on state watchlist

Trail runners run past new signage and revamped trails at the Horseshoe Lake Trailhead in Mammoth Lakes in Oct. 2019.
Trail runners run past new signage and revamped trails at the Horseshoe Lake Trailhead in Mammoth Lakes in Oct. 2019.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A surge in coronavirus cases tied to restaurants in Mammoth Lakes has prompted the state to place Mono County on its watchlist for the first time.

Compared with other counties in the state, which has recorded more than 414,000 infections and over 7,900 deaths, Mono County has been less affected and spared the surge in cases that hot spots such as Los Angeles and Orange counties have seen. But in recent weeks, the county has reported a spike.

Over the last two weeks, 40 people have tested positive for the virus, bringing the rate of infections to 8.03% and the seven-day average from July 12 to July 19 to 11.32%. One person is hospitalized in stable condition. The jump in cases is the highest the county has seen since the start of the pandemic.

At least 84 people have tested positive for the virus, with 79 of those cases in Mammoth Lakes. The city also accounts for the area’s sole death.

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According to the county, positive tests were identified through a variety of means, including community pop-up testing, contact tracing and symptomatic people at the hospital. The origins of 65% of new cases have been connected to restaurant operations.

The population of Mammoth Lakes is a little more than 8,100 — more than half of Mono County’s roughly 14,200. But the area is a tourist destination, especially around holiday weekends.

“We don’t believe July 4 was a primary catalyst, just a considerable number of visitors seeking solace in the Eastern Sierra,” public information officer Stuart Brown said.

Cases announced on any given day typically account for exposures from two weeks prior, so it’s probable that some stemmed from the holiday weekend. The county has identified restaurants in Mammoth Lakes as an area of focus and will mandate additional requirements at restaurants and businesses that prepare and serve food, including bars and coffee shops.

All restaurant employees will be required to wear personal protective equipment, such as surgical or N95 masks, as opposed to lower-level options like cloth coverings. The county will also require that at least 30% of employees at each restaurant get tested between July 22 and July 28, and each restaurant will be required to screen employees before each shift.

A restaurant’s failure to comply with the guidance will result in an immediate closure for 72 hours. A second violation would result in a five-day closure, which would escalate to a weeklong closure and possible fines.

Testing and screenings are not foolproof tactics in determining whether a person is positive for the virus, officials have said. A test can offer information about an individual only on a given day, and screenings typically rely on fever checks, which do not account for asymptomatic individuals.

But in the absence of a vaccine or medical therapies, testing, screenings and proactive measures such as the use of face coverings and social distancing are the only true weapons to fight the spread of the virus.

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“To mitigate this spread, it is now more important than ever to wear a face covering in public if you’re unable to physically distance, stay home if you are sick, frequently wash your hands, regularly clean objects and surfaces, and to avoid gatherings in groups of any kind, including with relatives from outside your household,” Mono County Health Officer Dr. Tom Boo said.

Although the county is expecting more cases in the coming weeks, hospitalizations have remained steady and capacity falls within state standards. Fewer than 80% of beds in intensive care are occupied and at least 75% of ventilators are available.


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