State health officials say an employee potluck potentially caused the recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases at Honolulu Hale, but Honolulu’s mayor says he has no idea what they’re talking about.

In a news release Monday, the state’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center cited the potluck as a “potential transmission source” for 11 cases of the virus found at the headquarters for Oahu’s city government over the past two weeks.

However, the only recent event to resemble a potluck on Honolulu Hale grounds was a city employee’s July 24 retirement party held outside the building on the Civic Center campus, according to Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Honolulu Hale bathed in sunrise light.
Honolulu Hale remains almost entirely closed to the public as city and medical officials aim to contain a cluster of COVID-19 cases recently discovered there. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Some 25 to 30 participants collected bentos at the party over a two-hour period, Caldwell told Civil Beat on Wednesday. The city has a list of the employees who purchased the bentos and none of them have tested positive for COVID-19, he added.

“We don’t believe it came” from the retirement event, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said he heard about the party for the first time Wednesday after the state Department of Health cited a potluck as a potential outbreak source.

It’s still not clear whether the retirement party is the event in question, however. DOH spokesman Dan Dennison did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.

Caldwell spokesman Alexander Zannes said he asked DOH for details on when and where the potluck occurred. “They couldn’t give us that information,” Zannes said. “They said they didn’t have that information.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell and City Council chair Ikaika Anderson during press conference announcing the Primary Election Official Ballot drop box at Kaneohe District park. There will be 7 other locations around Oahu.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell says that when state health officials report COVID-19 cases: “It’s not real specific.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“It’d be great if they told us,” Caldwell added. “Give us the evidence that you base your statement on.”

He said he didn’t think the DOH’s public statement signaled that there’s friction between state and city officials as they navigate the pandemic.

“It’s just how the DOH reports things,” Caldwell said. “It’s not real specific.”

On Wednesday, the number of Honolulu Hale employees to test positive rose to 13, the mayor added. Eleven of them are from the city’s Department of Budget and Fiscal Services. The building closed almost entirely to the public on Monday as city officials and medical staff aim to contain the cluster of cases there.

A medical team led by Dr. Scott Miscovich, a private physician, tested 474 employees who work at the building on Monday, Caldwell reported.

Caldwell said he issued a memo Wednesday asking city employees working in facilities across Oahu to refrain from gathering in lunchrooms. The memo also reminded them to wear masks and practice physical distancing, he said.

His office is currently drafting a new directive to prohibit large gatherings of city employees other than for official business and to use online meeting software for that business where possible.

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