Coronavirus Outbreaks Continue To Follow Colorado Schools, Bars And Restaurants As They Reopen

September 2, 2020
Jared Polis, r mJared Polis, r mDavid Zalubowski/AP
A nasal swab from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis after he was administered a test for the new coronavirus is held during a news conference outside the Stride Community Health Center Monday, May 18, 2020, in Wheat Ridge, Colo.

As many as 21 employees at a Topgolf driving range, bar and restaurant in Thornton may have contracted COVID-19, the latest in a growing list of virus outbreaks at bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues, according to a new report released by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. 

Three cases at the Thornton Topgolf have been confirmed by tests and 18 staff are suspected of having the virus, according to CDPHE.

The facility — part of a national chain — remains open. In a statement issued a day after the state released details of the outbreak, Topgolf said employees confirmed to be infected have not returned to the facility while they quarantine.

"There are no associates currently working in the venue with a confirmed case of COVID-19. There were three confirmed cases in early August, and these Associates were immediately required to self-isolate from the venue as part of our safety protocol," the statement read. "Additionally, it is part of our standard safety protocol to require associates to self-isolate should they present flu-like symptoms or come in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19. The report of 18 suspected cases was a result of our enforcement of this protocol."

The company did not post any type of announcement warning customers that they may have been exposed. An alert at the top of the business’s website did not mention cases among staff, but said, “Topgolf Thornton is open & we’re ready to safely welcome you back."

According to officials at CDPHE this is typical for Colorado businesses, which are not required to post public notice of an outbreak, even when large portions of their staff may have been infected and around customers.

“In many situations, a business does not track patrons who visit their establishment, which poses challenges for reaching contacts,” Nicole Comstock, an epidemiologist with CDPHE, told CPR News in a recorded statement. “Because the virus is circulating broadly in many communities, it is difficult to determine that a customer became infected at any given restaurant or retail store."

The Topgolf website does contain an admonition that customers are required to wear facemasks while walking through the restaurant, but notes: “When in your bay at a safe social distance from other guests who are not in your group, you are not required to wear a mask — this includes while eating, drinking or hitting.”

As Colorado’s economy began reopening in mid-June, public businesses like restaurants and retail have been hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks. These establishments represent nearly 20 percent of all outbreaks tracked by the state health department, the highest percentage of outbreaks in any sector other than residential healthcare facilities.

While outbreaks in businesses are tracked and recorded by CDPHE, the contact tracing efforts rarely extend to customers. CDPHE has identified 119 outbreaks in restaurants, stores and entertainment venues since the beginning of the pandemic, but has only traced contacts to customers in two cases.

Re-opening schools and colleges also represent a growing portion of new COVID-19 outbreaks. At least two schools — Bear Creek Elementary in Monument and Sand Creek Elementary in Castle Rock — reported outbreaks this week.

According to a statement from the Douglas County School District, the outbreak at Sand Creek Elementary occurred in a third-grade classroom cohort and resulted in the entire cohort going into quarantine. Bear Creek Elementary also had two cases within one classroom, which has been quarantined since Aug. 23. Both outbreaks were considered contained and the schools were able to remain open.

Another outbreak was reported at Colorado College this week. At least 10 students have tested positive for COVID-19 and an additional four have suspected cases of the virus. Three dormitories with hundreds of students have been put under quarantine since the college opened last month, and the recent cases prompted the college administration to move most classes online for the rest of the fall semester.

The state reported a total of 31 outbreaks this week. Aside from the previously mentioned outbreaks these included five offices, three food processing warehouses, two elder care facilities, two restaurants, two rehab facilities, two stores, two child-care centers, a tanning salon, a rafting and zip-lining company, a hotel, a warehouse, a church, an outpatient care facility, a fire station and among staff at the regional bus and train operator, RTD.

A complete list of Colorado’s outbreaks can be found here.

This story was updated Sept. 4 with a statement from Topgolf.