Health officials are investigating a potential illness outbreak reported by people who attended the Best of Baltimore Party on Aug. 18 at the American Visionary Art Museum.
The Baltimore magazine event included samples of food from some of the winners of the Best in Baltimore contest, as well as dancing and drinks.
Restaurants that served food at the party included Clavel, Cosima, Ekiben, Foraged, Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen, Gunther & Co., Ice Queens, Italian Disco, JBGB’s, La Barrita, La Scala, Linwood’s, Magdalena, Maximon, Motzi Bread, Ouzo Bay, Royal Farms, Sally O’s, THB Bagels, The Food Market, The Local and Waterfront Hotel.
“It was a nightmare. It was awful,” said Sarah Atherton, 52, of Baltimore. “I hope I never have to repeat it again.”
Michael de Lara, 45, and his girlfriend, both originally from Baltimore, traveled from Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, to the event. A few days later, both began feeling ill enough that they took COVID-19 tests, which came back negative.
“I’ve had food poisoning before, and this definitely wasn’t it,” de Lara said.
By Aug. 22, both felt so sick that they went to the emergency room, where they spent eight hours and underwent tests but were sent home without antibiotics, de Lara said.
Other attendees soon began sharing their experiences on Facebook, with at least 20 people describing similar symptoms following the event, he said.
As he dealt with sweats, fever, vomiting and diarrhea, de Lara said he had to reschedule more than a dozen clients for his window and power-washing business. By Tuesday, more than a week after he first noticed symptoms, he finally felt well enough to work again but still had a headache.
“I think all of us at least deserve a refund, at least,” de Lara said. “The time lost for me — somebody should be held accountable.”
Atherton said she began feeling sick Aug. 20. Her symptoms hit during a crucial planning week for her job as a counselor at Timber Grove Elementary School in Owings Mills, and she finally went to the emergency room on Aug. 25. Tests showed she had tested positive for Campylobacter, an infection that can come from food or untreated water.
Arinze Ifekauche, spokesperson for the Baltimore City Health Department, said the agency had received information regarding a potential outbreak and was working with state health officials to investigate.
The Maryland Department of Health sent out a survey to party attendees as part of its investigation into the potential outbreak, which it said the city health department is leading, according to an email from spokesperson Chase Cook.
“We encourage everyone who received the survey to complete it — regardless of whether or not they fell ill following the event,” Ifekauche said in a statement.
Macaulay Hammond, events director for Baltimore magazine, wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun that the magazine contacted the health department after multiple attendees developed an illness days after the event.
“Out of great concern for those who fell ill, we proactively contacted the Department of Health and alerted all ticket buyers. Once their investigation is complete, we will be reaching out directly to those who were affected,” Hammond wrote in an email. “We sincerely hope that anyone who has become ill begins feeling better soon.”
A copy of the survey sent to attendees and viewed Wednesday by The Sun listed about 30 food and drink items but did not include items from all the restaurants that served food at the event.
De Lara said some of the missing vendors had served in an upstairs area where people who later became sick had sampled food.
“We are working to get a complete list of food from Baltimore Magazine,” Cook wrote in an email Wednesday.
In a statement posted on the Baltimore magazine website Thursday, President Michael Teitelbaum said the magazine first became aware of attendees becoming sick five days after the event and that its staff members also had reported illness.
Baltimore magazine sent a complete list of each restaurant and vendor who served food and drink at the party to the Department of Health, along with the dishes or drinks served when known, according to Teitelbaum’s statement.
“In some cases, we didn’t know the exact food being served by each participating restaurant and followed up with the Department of Health the moment we did,” Teitelbaum said. “Due to the time sensitivity of the matter, the Department of Health sent the survey with the information they had in hand. We can assure you that no restaurant was left off for any other reason.”
The state health department has since sent out an updated survey, Cook said in an email.
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“If anyone did not get a survey, or wants to share more information, they can call our main number at 410-767-6700,” he wrote.
Sally O’s owner Jesse Sandlin said she didn’t believe her restaurant’s food was the cause of any food poisoning.
“Our dish was vegetarian, and we literally made everything the day before. I feel like we were pretty safe,” Sandlin said.
Magdalena also served food at the event and appears on the health department’s survey. Dane Wilfong, food and beverage director at the Hotel Ivy and Magdalena, said Wednesday that he hadn’t heard anything about an illness outbreak at the Best of Baltimore gathering.
“I know our programs are pretty rigorous,” Wilfong said, including detailed temperature control logs and keeping things iced. “We take health and safety very seriously, especially our catering.”
“It’s kind of a tragic thing,” putting a damper on one of the first Best of Baltimore events coming out of the pandemic, Sandlin said.
“I hope that everybody is at least OK and feeling better and that they figure out what happened and it doesn’t spread to anything else in the future,” she said.