Allegheny County’s chief epidemiologist testified Wednesday that restaurants operating at full capacity and without mask requirements during the covid-19 pandemic “absolutely” pose a risk to the community.
LuAnn Brink, who also serves as deputy director of the county health department, was the first witness called in a hearing involving the closure of the Crack’d Egg. The restaurant has contended the order to close was not valid.
The Brentwood restaurant was shuttered by the health department on Aug. 11 after county inspectors found that neither employees nor customers were wearing masks as required by the governor’s covid-19 mitigation orders. Owner Kimberly Waigand, however, ignored the closure notice and has continued to operate. She has boasted on social media that she is fighting against tyranny and spoke at a rally in Harrisburg in September.
During an opening statement, her attorney, James Cooney, said that there is no proof that the governor’s covid mitigation orders are effective and further that there is no legal authority for them.
The hearing, before Common Pleas Judge John McVay, is expected to continue through Friday. It will resume on Thursday morning with Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, taking the stand.
Brink, who spent much of the day testifying, said that, while there was some confusion early in the pandemic about the efficacy of masks, they have since been shown to be effective.
“To me it makes biological sense,” she said.
Brink noted that masks have been proved effective for hundreds of years at capturing droplets that transmit disease. Public health officials have recommended simple cloth masks to prevent the wearer from spreading the disease.
“There is a body of literature that speaks to the reproduction rate of the virus,” she said. “Studies showed a seven-fold decrease in transmission in areas using masks.”
Brink said she is not aware of any dispute for that point in the epidemiological community.
“If you have a mask on, you control the number of viral particles that you expel,” she said. “The number is less. The droplets are fewer. The viral particles are fewer when you have a mask covering your face.”
“So is it better to wear a mask to prevent the virus than not to wear it?” asked county attorney Michael Parker.
“Absolutely,” Brink answered.
She said that restaurants operating at full capacity and without mask requirements are posing a risk to the community.
As for social distancing requirements, Brink said that health officials’ observations locally showed that closures and physical distancing helped keep caseloads low in the spring.
But, when Pennsylvania lifted its stay-at-home orders, and bars and restaurants opened back up, Brink said, caseloads “went through the roof. It went up 10-fold. It left us scrambling.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Brink said that there have been 11 “outbreaks” traced back to restaurants in Allegheny County. Eight of those, she said were in the month of June. The others occurred in October and November.
Brink did not identify the restaurants in her testimony, but confirmed that Crack’d Egg was not among them.
Parker followed up by asking, “If a business is operating illegally, would you expect people to admit to going to that business?”
Brind responded: “I would not expect that. A lot of people hang up on our case investigators.”
There are fewer outbreaks traced to other businesses — like big-box stores with high ceilings — because customers there are “in motion the entire time,” Brink said.
“You are not in a static position for a prolonged period of time,” she said. “Sitting quite near somebody does pose a risk of transmission.”
Still, Brink said she was not advocating shutting everything down. “That’s a miserable situation for everyone,” she said.
During the hearing, Amanda Mator, operations manager for the health department’s food safety program, said that the Crack’d Egg would be permitted to reopen if the restaurant submitted a covid-19 prevention plan, showing how it would comply with the governor’s mitigation orders.
“What legal authority do you have that you can demand a covid prevention plan for anyone?” Cooney asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
Then Mator continued, citing Article 3, Food Safety Rules and Regulations for Allegheny County. Under Article 3, a restaurant may not operate without a county health permit.
“Only persons who comply with all applicable department rules and regulations, state and federal laws shall be entitled to receive and retain such a permit,” it says.
During the pendency of the case against the Crack’d Egg, Mator said she felt threatened when her name and home address were posted on social media relative to the enforcement action.
“The post asked if anyone would like to show up at my doorstep,” Mator said.
She reported the incident to the FBI and filed a police report.
Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .
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