Vogue story raises cluster questions

Featured wedding was the same day as COVID cluster, and at the same West Tisbury inn.

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Vogue posted and tweeted out a story on a Martha's Vineyard wedding. Then they pulled it when The Times started asking questions.

A wedding on the same day and at the same venue that started the Island on a COVID skid was featured online by Vogue for two days before the story was pulled. The Vogue piece made no mention of the Island’s struggle with the coronavirus after that weekend, and instead had an upbeat tone, with the headline, “This outdoor wedding on Martha’s Vineyard was all fall elegance.” Photos showed very few people wearing masks, and guests sitting elbow-to-elbow.

The Times had been working on a story about a West Tisbury resident’s concerns about contact tracing when the Vogue story appeared Monday. During the investigation of contact tracing, an email from a Tisbury health official to the West Tisbury resident pinned the wedding cluster to the Lambert’s Cove Inn. The Vogue story featured a wedding on the Vineyard on Oct. 11, the same day Tisbury health agent Maura Valley initially told The Times the wedding was held.

Martha’s Vineyard has seen a 118-case surge in COVID-19 cases in the past three weeks, beginning with reports of a cluster of 10 cases linked to a wedding on Oct. 11 — two of which were tied to people from off-Island. Five of the cases were reported to be workers at the wedding, who presumably went about their daily lives before realizing they were infected.

In an Oct. 27 press release, Valley wrote, The source of the outbreak is believed to be event guests who left the Island the morning after the event.”

Though other Island cases haven’t been directly tied to the wedding, and the bride featured by Vogue said in a statement to The Times there’s no way to tie the cluster directly to her nuptials, that initial cluster was the beginning of a one-month surge in cases across Martha’s Vineyard. During that time, the Island has reported 118 positive cases of COVID-19 at presstime, more than all the cases reported in the first seven months of the pandemic.

The Vogue story, which was published on Monday, featured the wedding of Chelsea Keyes and Evan McDuffie, an off-Island couple with ties to the Vineyard. It was pulled off the internet sometime Tuesday, with no explanation, after The Times started asking questions locally and of the couple.

In a statement to The Times, Lambert’s Cove Inn owners John and Keya Cain wrote that all guests during the pandemic have been informed of mask wearing and social distancing requirements.

“As a family-owned inn, restaurant, and event venue, we have gone above and beyond to follow CDC and state guidelines regarding COVID-related safety measures. For example, we have consistently adhered to size limits for events, and ensured our staff follow mask and social distancing requirements,” the statement reads. “We have also informed all our guests of mask wearing and out-of-state travel requirements, and enforced these to the extent possible. The health and safety of our staff and guests are our top priority. 

“The intimate outdoors wedding featured in the Vogue article consisted of an extended family group that was sharing living quarters off-property as a ‘bubble’ of contacts,” the statement reads. There is no mention of the guests quarantining for 14 days, as required by the governor’s order. “As mentioned in the article, they followed CDC guidance and provided masks to their guests at the ceremony entrance,” according to the statement. “It is our understanding that they only removed masks while eating and taking wedding photos for their Vogue article, and this only occurred outdoors.”

But that’s not what the photos showed. In some cases, people seated for the ceremony and the reception were sitting in close proximity, and not wearing masks.

The Cains declined requests to answer specific questions about the wedding. Once Vogue pulled the story from the website, the inn owners also attempted to rescind their previous statement. The Times, once again, provided an opportunity for the Cains to answer questions, and they declined.

According to the Vogue story, the couple originally planned to get married in Edgartown, but switched to the Lambert’s Cove Inn after their unidentified Edgartown venue told them COVID-19 restrictions would allow their indoor reception to have only 17 guests. The story also states that the Lambert’s Cove Inn provided the opportunity for an outdoor ceremony, cocktail hour, and wedding reception. “Additionally, they provided masks at the ceremony entrance, and the venue had sanitization stations around the grounds, limited guests per table, and all passed food was preplated and served individually,” the story stated.

But while the story talked about masks being distributed and features a photograph of the customized masks in a basket, mask use and social distancing is scant in the 68 photos that accompanied the feature. Another photo shows chairs at tables that are just inches apart.

Per state guidelines at the time, Gov. Charlie Baker’s order No. 52 stated that outdoor gatherings for reserved spaces such as the inn were limited to 100 people, and required a manager for the event, notification to the board of health if there were more than 50 people, and a plan submitted to the board of health if there were more than 50 participants. Social distance of six feet for those not part of the same household was required under the order. For gatherings of more than 10 people, all people were required to wear a face covering while attending an indoor or outdoor event.

West Tisbury selectman and Island Health Care CEO Cynthia Mitchell declined to comment on the wedding.

In an email to The Times, West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson wrote that the wedding did not need to report the outdoor event to the board of health because there were only 35 attendees.

Johnson’s comment was before the Vogue piece appeared, then disappeared online. On Wednesday, he said he could not comment on the Vogue story, but reiterated that no wedding plan needed to be submitted to the health department. “The fact that they did not abide by the safety protocols that you may have witnessed from photographs is something that’s beyond the board of health’s control. Something not monitored by us, that would have been in the hands of the wedding coordinator, the Lambert’s Cove Inn, and the individuals that participated in the ceremony,” Johnson said.

Vogue did not respond to a request for comment, but removed the story from the website Tuesday night. A post about the story remained on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

Maura Valley, who has acted as spokesperson for the Island boards of health, did not respond to questions about the event. She has made repeated candid comments about her disappointment about the recent surge in cases, including at Tuesday’s Tisbury select board meeting.

“It was really disappointing that we got through the summer only to be hit with this in the off-season,” Valley said of the recent spike that’s pushed her hometown into the state’s red zone for at-risk communities.

One of the photos in the Vogue spread showed the groomsmen huddled close together. The photo caption reads that the friends gathered together “after months of not seeing each other due to the pandemic and everyone now living in different parts of the country.”

It’s unclear if the wedding party quarantined for 14 days when they arrived on the Island, or got negative COVID-19 tests, a requirement issued by Gov. Baker.

“At one point during the summer, we weren’t sure what the fate of our wedding would become. But in the end, we had the beautiful and intimate wedding of our dreams, in Martha’s Vineyard, the most special place in the world to us. I want people to know that even during a pandemic, love prevails,” Keyes is quoted as saying in the story. “We were nervous to cut down our guest list, and there were so many family members and friends who were missed, but the outcome was a personal and magical occasion we will never forget.”

In an email to The Times, Keyes wrote the wedding followed all guidelines set out by the state and the Inn. “As you are aware, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the origin of the outbreak or where it stemmed from. There was a wedding the night before ours at the same venue, as well as many weddings during that weekend that were staffed and supported by a number of individuals. For our wedding specifically, we followed the protocol of the venue and the commonwealth of Massachusetts, including having an outdoor wedding with 40 guests, designating sanitization areas, and — as a welcome gift at the ceremony — gave out custom masks made by a local MV vendor. While we do not know the source of the outbreak, we deeply regret the impact it’s had on our guests, family, and the Island community,” Keyes wrote.

Contact tracing questioned

The Times also received emails from the West Tisbury resident who first approached The Times about concerns with contact tracing after coming into contact with an employee who worked the Sunday, Oct. 11, wedding. When the boards of health confirmed a cluster was linked to a wedding over the weekend before Columbus Day, the resident reached out to public health officials, asking if they should get tested, or whom they should speak to about contact tracing. 

The resident reached out to the Tisbury health department to speak with boards of health spokesperson and Tisbury health agent Maura Valley. Three days later, a Tisbury health department employee asked the resident if they were looking for a press release, and which organization they were with. After a back-and-forth on email, the Tisbury employee then told the resident to contact Johnson, and then confirmed there was a “cluster event” at Lambert’s Cove Inn. The employee then said disclosing the location was an error.

“I am just back from vacation, and confirmed the wedding location to you in error. This information has not been disclosed out of privacy concerns. Mr. Johnson will be contacting you,” the Tisbury employee wrote.

The exchange called into question the Island’s contact tracing, the resident told The Times.

Jim Rogers, chair of the Tisbury select board, was stunned to hear about the story done by Vogue on the wedding.

“I don’t know if the board of health and tracking has put two and two together, but it’s highly inconsiderate for someone to come in, hold a wedding like that, and think of themselves more than anyone else,” Rogers said.