High-risk McKinleyville party, ‘COVID prom’ ignored state guidance

Attendees at the '80s-themed party. Via Facebook

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – A weekend party in McKinleyville attended by more than a dozen individuals appears to have been held in violation of state guidance regarding gatherings. 

Hosted by McKinleyville resident Tephi Henry, the ‘80s-themed party was attended by group of women from varying professions whose work brings them into regular contact with the public, including nurses, hair stylists, a restaurant server, office workers and others. Photos from the party were shared on several of the partygoers’ Facebook pages.

The party's food offerings. Via Facebook

The event was in apparent conflict with current California Department of Public Health COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Revised Oct. 9, the guidelines prohibit gatherings involving members of more than three families, stipulate that social gatherings be held outside, and require that face coverings be used and social distancing be observed. Participants may go inside, but only to use a frequently sanitized bathroom.

The Humboldt County Health Officer's Order requires compliance with the state's guidance.

Pictures from the party show attendees indoors, unmasked and in extremely close proximity. A buffet-style food spread includes tongs and serving spoons, with no sanitizing wipes or other measures to minimize virus transmission evident, as urged by CDPH.

The party came after a week of news about a “super spreader” gathering at the White House, after which numerous unmasked attendees were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Young diners (with faces obscured by the Union) at the June "COVID Prom." Via Facebook

Via Facebook.

'COVID Prom'

It was only the latest high-risk gathering held at Henry’s home.

On June 27, Henry hosted a “COVID prom” for McKinleyville High School graduates. Photos from that outdoor gathering show at least two dozen attendees dining in close proximity, but with no indication of disease prevention measures. 

A chalkboard sign from the party almost seems to mock COVID prevention guidelines.  Reads the sign, “It’s Your PROM… Do What You Want! #COVID2020.” A photo montage from the event is labeled, "Quarantine PROM 2020."

A photo montage from the "Quarantine PROM 2020." Via Facebook

Previous state guidance issued March 16 and in place at that time stated, “All gatherings should be postponed or canceled.” It defined "gathering" as “any event or convening that brings together people in a single room or single space at the same time,” including “any other indoor or outdoor space.”

A bad precedent

A Southern Humboldt gathering of approximately 50 people in August resulted in 22 known cases of COVID-19. 

At the time, Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich noted the prohibition against such gatherings.

“This is why gatherings outside your household unit are risky,” she said. “We are seeing positive COVID-19 cases in people who did not attend the event, because as individuals at the party became ill, they exposed others unrelated to the event.”

“Having a party or wedding or any other kind of gathering is a choice that not only impacts you, it impacts your community,” Frankovich added. “Staying within your household unit is safest but if you are going to socialize outside your household, please do it as safely as possible. Keep the group to no more than 4-6 people; gather outdoors only; wear masks unless you are at least 6 feet apart; bring your own food and beverages; carry and use hand sanitizer and if possible, socialize only with this small consistent group. It is up to all of us to do the things that will allow our businesses to stay open and our children to get back to and stay in school.”

'Sitting on a high horse'

The Union contacted a number of the partygoers via Facebook Messenger, asking about the party and any precautions that might have been in place. So far, just one responded.

Attendee Melissa Harnden said the party was a hard-earned reward for eight months of coronavirus-induced hardship. 

“My family in particular has not attended events, we have missed birthdays, births in the family, my grandparents anniversary, graduations, and my grandfather’s death just 3 weeks ago, etc.” she said, voicing the similar experiences of many.

“This pandemic has been awful and our area has made me proud and has done really well!,” said Harnden. “So after 8 months and a lot of thought about it it was decided to plan a night in and enjoy the company of friends and believe me this group has a lot more friends than pictured but kept it to a smaller group. And the women in that picture are VERY solid characters whom have been staying safe and mostly just staying home during this pandemic.”

She was was angered by questions about the party, “and anyone else still sitting on a high horse ready to judge others.”

'Common sense, respect for others, common decency'

In a June 18 Facebook posting, Harnden, an obstetrics nurse at St. Joseph Hospital, was unreservedly judgy about anti-maskers, and more aligned with biological reality. 

“Would some of you quit crying about the statewide mask order already?!!,” she wrote. “You seriously look like a bunch of crybaby toddlers at this point with your ‘it’s a violation of my rights BS'.”

"The truth of the matter is we’re all sick of it!!," Harnden said at the time. "Nurses and providers are sick of it. We hate it. We want it all to go away and be done with and can’t wait to all get home and rip our mask off and vent about this stupid new reality."

“But the difference between myself and many others complying with the masks and those not complying comes down to a mix of common sense (with regard to science), respect for others and some common decency,” she said.

Concluded Harnden in the June posting, "And some people want to argue ‘it’s not even bad here’ in regard to number of cases. Hey Einstein, Humboldt has been more strict that many other areas and our numbers are low. Let that marinate for a minute and sink in!"

Heather Muller, lead public information officer for Humboldt's COVID Emergency Operations Center, echoed that observation.

"Health officials continue to urge residents to follow state and local orders, and for the most part our community has done so," Muller said. "That’s why Humboldt County is in the yellow tier right now with nine active cases currently, while Shasta County, for example, had 159 new cases just over the past weekend." 


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