A potential superspreader weekend party under investigation by the Shelby County Health Department should have been stopped before it happened, said a woman who made desperate warning calls to authorities days before the event.
At a press conference Tuesday, health officials promised to investigate Saturday’s All Black Affair party, which they worry could be a superspreader event for COVID-19. But last week, three days before the Hickory Hill soiree, a Horn Lake woman tried to sound the alarm but said officials blew off her concerns.
Videos of party promoter Curtis Givens’ annual event shared on social media show a large crowd of attendees dancing and singing in a tent built on the parking lot outside the In Love Memphis nightclub, many maskless and standing far less than six feet apart.
While health officials investigate the event – for which Givens did not get the required prior approval – the department and Givens both shifted some responsibility to the attendees for choosing to party instead of staying home.
One critic, however, said it was up to the county to prevent the party from occurring at all.
Kim Sifinski, who lives in Horn Lake, Mississippi, said she learned about the party because a friend was concerned that her child’s daycare provider was planning to attend the All Black Affair. She felt the event needed to be canceled because the crowd expected could spread the coronavirus.
Sifinski said she called the Shelby County mayor’s office on Nov. 25, and was referred to the county Mayor’s Action Center, which referred her to the Shelby County Health Department. After speaking with representatives she described as “nonchalant,” she warned that the party scheduled for Nov. 28 could be a violation of health department rules and asked that they shut it down.
“I was on the phone with her for half an hour,” Sifinski said. “I gave her all the sources that they needed to refer to. I gave her the website for the event. I told her how many (ticket tiers) were sold out, which was mostly indoor, and (that) they were not socially distanced.”
The representative taking Sifinski’s complaint told her it would be referred to a health inspector who would look into the event, Sifinski said. But the department never got back to her.
She was passionate about seeing the event canceled, she said, and wants people to take the pandemic seriously, so they don’t have to suffer a tragedy like the one experienced by her family. Her daughter-in-law’s 39-year-old uncle was taken off life support after his body deteriorated during a battle with COVID-19, she explained, as her voice broke.
“Now, when I look at the numbers on TV, those numbers are personal,” Sifinski said. “You want people to do the right thing and you shouldn’t have to beg people. We’re all human beings.”
She also said Givens’ choice to hold the event despite the climbing number of infections in the United States was selfish. Today, Shelby County reported 549 new cases for a total of 49,263 and 672 deaths. The country overall saw more than 180,000 new cases for a total of at least 13.7 million cases and more than 270,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
“He should have never done this. It’s money over people, shame on him — shame on him,” Sifinski said. “You did this to line your pockets and now here you are; you won’t take responsibility for it.”
Givens did not respond to voicemails, texts and Facebook messages from MLK50 requesting comment.
In an interview posted to Facebook Monday with controversial former radio host Thaddeus Matthews, Givens defended his business decision, saying his club being open is no different from Home Depot, Kroger and Walmart being open for business.
The county’s health directive is largely focused on businesses that serve food, alcohol and entertainment, but also prohibits grocery and retail stores from allowing customers to eat or drink in the businesses and requires customers to wear masks.
Givens said he required temperature checks and masks at the door and several reminders were given to attendees during the party to keep the masks on. The health department came to the venue at 9:30 p.m. and told him the party was in compliance, Givens told Matthews.
SCHD Health Officer Bruce Randolph gave a different timeline at Tuesday’s press conference.
An inspector reported at 3:46 p.m., 14 minutes before the party was scheduled to start, that there were no violations of the health directive, Randolph said. Inspectors returned at 8 p.m., saw that some people were not wearing masks and not social distancing but chose not to shut down the event, he said. Also, “there was confusion,” Randolph said, about whether the enclosed tent counted as an indoor or outdoor space.
Givens stood by his decision to throw the event, and said he isn’t responsible if attendees broke the health directive.
“I never put a gun to nobody’s head and made them come,” Givens told Matthews. “These people chose to come.”
Along with masks and social distancing, the health directive requires bar patrons to be seated and prohibits dancing. Also, large-scale events are not allowed without SCHD’s approval. SCHD Director Alisa Haushalter said Givens did not seek approval from the department before throwing the party.
Penalties for refusing to comply with the health directive can result in SCHD closing the business, revoking permits and licenses and a fine of up to $2,500 per incident. Randolph said the department will do “something” but did not specify what may happen after the investigation.
“A part of our investigation is internal,” Randolph said. “We want to assess our successes and failures, any shortcomings we might have had internally in terms of our investigation team that may have contributed in any kind of way to the event taking place.”
Randolph also emphasized the importance of personal responsibility in stopping the spread of coronavirus.
“We all have a role to play in preventing and controlling the transmission of this virus,” Randolph said at the press conference. “And as I’ve said before, I will repeat again, just because something is legally permissible, it’s not medically advisable to attend or participate.
“Just because it’s open, you should not go.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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