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‘Major’ COVID outbreak at Mastro’s, including first known Omicron case in Coachella Valley

Nearly 90 employees of Mastro's Steakhouse in Palm Desert have been ordered to get tested for COVID-19 after a major outbreak among workers that included a case of the Omicron variant, health officials announced on Wednesday.

At this time, it is the first Omicron case in the Coachella Valley. Riverside County reported its first case of the Omicron variant last week in the western portion of the county.

The Riverside County Health Department said its investigating more than 20 cases that have been reported at Mastro's over the last 30 days. At least two employees were hospitalized after becoming ill.

Public Information Officer for Riverside County Department of Public Health, Jose Arballo, told News Channel 3 that officials began testing workers at the restaurant Tuesday afternoon because "at this point, that is where the outbreak was."

Arballo said the county became aware of the outbreak at Mastro's through contact tracing. He explained, "as people get tested, their information gets into a system, and then we get notified when there are positive cases." Arballo added, "then through case investigation and contact tracing, we're able to determine that they were employees here at this restaurant. At that point as we formulated a plan of action, when we saw the high number of cases, it was important to know what the situation is here."

Arballo said restaurant management and ownership cooperated to "get as many employees tested as possible." He added County Health officials arrived at Mastro's Tuesday afternoon to begin testing employees.

The manager of Mastro's was notified about the order Tuesday afternoon, with health officials urging them not to open the restaurant for dinner. After initially opening for service, the restaurant closed early so testing could be done, according to RUHS-Public Health.

A team of public health workers were at the restaurant through Tuesday evening to offer the free testing, and returned Wednesday morning to continue further testing.

Arballo said while they have tested "a good number of employees," testing of remaining employees will be conducted. He also reiterated the best way for members of the community, including restaurant staff and patrons, is to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and practice other safety precautions like social distancing, mask wearing and frequent hand washing, and frequent cleaning.

Arballo also said patrons of the restaurant should not worry at this point "because no cases have been confirmed outside the employees." "Given when the cases occurred, at this point we're not telling people who ate here to get tested," he added.

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“This step was taken to protect both the employees and members of the public,” said Kim Saruwatari, director of Public Health for Riverside County. “It was not done lightly.”

One factor, officials said, was that an Omicron variant case was confirmed among the ill employees. The variant, which was recently confirmed in Riverside County, appears to be more contagious than other forms of the virus.

Employees can return to work after employees are tested and no virus is detected and exposures have been addressed, officials said. Saruwatari praised the cooperation from both local and corporate leadership of the restaurant, which she said made the testing process run smoothly.

“We are all interested in the same thing: protecting the health of employees and the public, and opening the business as quickly as possible,” she said.

Riverside County health officials have been reaching out more than a week to local managers and the restaurant’s corporate officials in Texas for more information about employees to help with contact tracing and case investigation.

Statement from Tim Whitlock, COO of Mastro’s Restaurants.

“We assure the public that we have and will continue to follow all CDC guidelines and have taken all required precautions to ensure the safety of our staff and guests. We continue to cooperate with the local Health Department. Our employees have been tested and any exposures have been addressed. The restaurant has been fully sanitized and will reopen this evening.”

Local health officials consulted with state health representatives who indicated the county’s action was within the guidelines of the California Department of Industrial Relations and the Emergency Temporary Standards for COVID-19 prevention.

State officials said a “major” outbreak is considered when there are more than 20 cases within a 30-day period.

Stay with News Channel 3 for continuing updates.

You can reach the newsroom through SHARE@KESQ.com.

Jesus Reyes

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Jennifer Franco

Jennifer Franco is the weekend anchor/weekday reporter for KESQ News Channel 3

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