How travel brought the coronavirus to Park City and this bar paid the price

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Spur Bar & Grill, Park City, April 1, 2020.

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It was March 13, a Friday night. Tourists and other imbibers were lined up in freezing temperatures on Main Street in Park City waiting to go inside The Spur Bar & Grill.

Elsewhere in Park City, Cortney Johanson was on the telephone. Her family and that of her husband co-own the Spur and a restaurant next door, called 350 Main. One of the doormen from the Spur called Johanson and her husband, Fabio Ferreira, at home to tell them he had tested positive for COVID-19. It marked the first instance of community spread in Summit County.

The next phone call was from the health department.

“You’re not going to like what I have to say,” said Rich Bullough, director of the Summit County Health Department, “but your bar has to be closed immediately.”

In the weeks that have followed, Summit County has become one of the hottest per-capita spots for the coronavirus in the United States. Johanson, in an interview last week, described what led to the closing of her family’s businesses and how she tried to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

(Courtesy photo) Cortney Johanson, co-owner of the Spur Bar & Grill and 350 Main, both in Park City, in this 2020 photo.

She spoke in part because she doesn’t like how Spur employees have been treated by some Park City residents. She describes the staff, up to 100 workers during the busy seasons, as hard workers who look upon one another almost as family.

It was a tourist or another traveler, she noted, who infected the doorman.

“We’re a small, really tight community here,” Johanson said of the people who live in and around Park City, “and we’ve been infiltrated a little bit.”

One of her managers had a child kicked out of day care because the proprietors were afraid the youngster would bring the coronavirus there. Johanson said roommates of Spur staffers weren’t allowed at their jobs for the same reason.

(Courtesy photo) Cortney Johanson, who co-owns the Spur Bar & Grill in Park City with her family, sent this photo that someone shared with her from March 2020. It's a miner statute in a town square. Someone hung a sign that said reading, “Thanks to THE SPUR I tested positive.” A doorman at the Spur tested positive for COVID-19 on March 13, 2020.

Community backlash

At a small square on Main Street stands a statue of a miner. It pays homage to Park City’s mining roots. Johanson shared a photo sent to her. Someone had hung a sign on the miner reading, “Thanks to THE SPUR I tested positive.”

Kid Richmond, a former stuntman who now consults on script writing, is one Park City resident who has been publicly critical of the Spur.

The 39-year-old tested negative for the coronavirus on March 24. And while he didn’t visit the Spur during those critical weeks, he argues employees and owners put the resort town at risk.

“It’s not difficult for someone to go hang out at the Spur and infect someone in this small town,” Richmond said in an interview. “The reality is The Spur Bar & Grill manager, employee are ... reckless.”

Interviews also show that a lack of COVID-19 testing and the economics of Utah’s service industry played roles in the outbreak.

The doorman, a middle-aged man who doesn’t have health insurance, wasn’t tested for the coronavirus for almost a week after he showed symptoms, Johanson said. While the Utah Department of Health has said he last worked at the Spur on March 6, Johanson confirmed the man returned to work four days later, though he was quickly sent home.

“This is his only job,” Johanson said. “It’s not his secondary job. He’s an hourly paid worker.”

The employee declined to respond to messages sent through Johanson. She said he has recovered from the virus.

Johanson said at least three other Spur employees showed signs of the coronavirus after the closure and are recovering or have recovered. Up to 15 other workers went into a quarantine on March 13 or the next day.

‘Amazing worker’

Park City receives 3 million visitors a year. They arrive by plane, car, bus, bicycle and ski lift. The Spur is positioned in a spot most of them will see — the center of the town’s Main Street. A second-floor patio sits above the tavern’s brick exterior. On a busy weekend during either the ski or summer season, visitors can fill the Spur’s 500-person capacity venue.

By March 6, few Americans outside of Seattle were thinking much about the coronavirus.

That day, the Utah Department of Health announced the state had its first confirmed case. The department would attribute those first few cases to people who had traveled outside the Beehive State.

Also on March 6, Johanson said the doorman showed up at the Spur that afternoon. He is an “amazing worker,” Johanson said, but the bar has a policy of employees not working when they are sick. He was sent home after working part of his shift.

The next day, he went to a clinic.

“He said, ‘They didn’t want to test me’” for the coronavirus, Johanson reported, relaying a conversation she had with the employee. “'They tested me for the flu.'”

That flu test came back negative, Johanson said. He was diagnosed with a chest cold.

The employee returned March 10 to the Spur, said Ferreira, who was working the door that day, to say he was still sick. He was coughing and felt ill. Ferreira quickly sent him home.

(Courtesy photo) Fabio Ferreira, left, and his wife, Cortney Johanson, managing partners of the Spur Bar & Grill and 350 Main, both in Park City, pose with Aaron Hofmann, in this undated photo.

The next day, a Wednesday, Johanson and her staff, who had been watching the news and the national advisories about how to slow the spread of COVID-19, began implementing some safeguards to protect customers and employees. To enhance distancing between patrons, only 240 customers were allowed inside the Spur at a time, and all diners had to apply hand sanitizer as they walked through the door.

That’s also the day Utah and the rest of the country changed.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. The NBA suspended its season. Other sports leagues and events of all sorts soon followed.

The ski resorts, however, stayed open. Park City was still full of visitors.

On Thursday, the doorman sought medical opinions again. Johanson said a clinic performed a CT scan of his lungs and tested him for the coronavirus. He received his results the next day.

He had COVID-19.

‘This monster out there’

Johanson and Ferreira were home with their children, ages 4 and 6, when they received the call from the doorman at 9:45 p.m. The employee added that they were about to get a phone call from the health department.

On Main Street, the metering of customers had caused a line to form outside the Spur. People in the line could see the empty seats inside. The would-be patrons were angry and yelling, Johanson was told that night.

“It didn’t seem like the tourism was slowing down at all,” she said.

But there was no decision to be made when Bullough called. Johanson and Ferreira quickly agreed to close for the night. Johanson called the managers.

Customers were asked to finish their drinks and leave. Patrons were gone by 11:15 p.m., about two hours earlier than normal.

The Utah Department of Health would say later the concerns were for the co-workers the doorman had come in contact with. They could spread it to the customers coming into the Spur.

On Saturday, March 14, a restoration team, the kind usually reserved for cleaning up homes or businesses after floods or other disasters, was called to the Spur to sanitize it. The county health department asked for names and phone numbers of all the employees who had worked with the doorman in the two weeks before he started showing symptoms.

Cleaning the Spur would take two days, but Johanson and Ferreira had the option to open after that. And 350 Main could open for dinner that night. Customers were still calling 350 Main to reserve tables, Johanson said. There were 200 reservations by noon.

March in Park City is the last busy month for skiing. April is a slow time for many businesses, and they offer fewer hours to their workers. Visitors and commerce increase again when schools let out. Johanson pondered the financial consequences to both herself and her workers if she closed her doors.

But many of the Spur employees would have to go into quarantine. Some of the 350 Main employees had a drink at the Spur the night before. She worried they might have gotten infected.

“It’s gut-wrenching when you’re responsible,” Johanson said. “You feel like you want to create a safe environment for your employees.

“There’s this monster out there, and you don’t know where it is.”

Johanson and Ferreira decided to close the Spur and 350 Main until the pandemic passes. She began calling those 200 reservations to break the news.

The Spur also put an announcement on its Facebook page about the closure and an employee testing positive. Most of the commenters were supportive. A few, like Richmond, were not.

Some asked if they needed to be worried.

“Three of us were visiting from Virginia on March 3 — was this person working that night?” wrote one commenter. “Also, you probably already know this, but your voice mailbox is full. Thank you.”

Johanson said she fielded phone calls with similar queries.

(Sean Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Spur Bar & Grill in Park City is closed after an employee contracted COVID-19. It was announced on Saturday, March 14, 2020, and was the first case of community spread found in Utah.

To your health

The Spur and 350 Main were forerunners, of sorts. On March 17, Gov. Gary Herbert ordered bars and restaurants in Utah to end sit-down dining. Takeout and delivery are still allowed.

Summit County ski resorts shut down within days of the Spur and 350 Main. The streets and sidewalks in downtown Park City look like most of the rest of America now — populated by few people.

Meanwhile, the Summit County Health Department traced possible infections from Spur employees and continued following up with them to see if they were developing symptoms, Johanson said.

Carolyn Rose, nursing director for the county’s health department, declined to give specifics of her interactions with any individuals but wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune that she has a five-member staff, including an employee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to conduct investigations into transmissions and notify people who might have been exposed.

“The contacts are typically called every day for 14 days (the incubation period) to determine if the contact is healthy or has started to have symptoms,” Rose wrote. “At Day 14, if the contact is asymptomatic, they are permitted to be out of quarantine.”

Rose said some individuals are hard to reach. If the health department doesn’t have a phone number for a person or no one answers, staffers try to send letters.

No one in either the state or county health department has said how many people might have been infected at the Spur or by its employees.

Bullough, according to a spokesman’s email to The Tribune, “wanted to stress that Cortney was very compliant and cooperative throughout the process.”

No members of Johanson’s household have shown any symptoms, she said, but they continue to social distance.

Johanson isn’t sure 350 Main will survive. If it reopens and makes enough money in the summer, that should carry it to ski season.

She believes the Spur will recover.

After this, she said, people “will want to go out and drink.”