Local health officials are investigating reports of food poisoning at an Aug. 18 event in Baltimore.
The event, presented by Baltimore magazine, drew guests to the American Visionary Art Museum to celebrate the “Best of Baltimore” and sample cuisine from some of the city’s favorite local restaurants.
But an unknown number of attendees fell ill in the days afterward.
One was Cristina Layana, a 35-year-old Edgemere resident. While she avoided eating items like raw oysters because she is pregnant, her husband feasted on food from a number of different places.
On Sunday, both Layana and her husband got sick. “I just basically laid in bed,” she said. “I felt like a bus had hit me.” They initially assumed they had the coronavirus until both tested negative twice. Her symptoms included severe diarrhea that cleared up within a few days. Nearly two weeks after the event, though, her husband was still experiencing symptoms and required medical attention.
Then Layana received a message from organizers notifying them that “some people who attended this year’s party experienced an illness in the days after.” The message said event staff had contacted local health officials, who would be conducting a survey of guests as part of an investigation.
On Aug. 29, according to an email Layana provided, the state of Maryland sent the following notice to attendees: “The Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD) in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) are investigating illnesses among attendees of the Best of Baltimore party held on August 18, 2022, at the American Visionary Arts Museum.”
The message stated: “We have not yet determined how people became ill and we need your assistance to do so, even if you did not get sick.”
Arinze Ifekauche, director of communications for the Baltimore City Health Department, confirmed that the agency was working with the state of Maryland to investigate “a potential outbreak at the Best of Baltimore event.” Ifekauche did not say how many people were estimated to have gotten ill or what was responsible.
“We encourage everyone who received the survey to complete it — regardless of whether or not they fell ill following the event,” Ifekauche wrote in an email.
The emailed survey asked guests about what they had eaten during the event, listing around 30 options. Vendors present at the event included local restaurants large and small, including JBGB’s, Sally O’s, Guinness Open Gate Brewery, Ekiben, Royal Farms, the Atlas Restaurant Group and more.
But Layana said that not all the participating restaurants had been included in the survey, leading her to wonder why they had been omitted. Ifekauche referred questions to the state of Maryland.
“We are working to get a complete list of food from Baltimore Magazine,” wrote Chase Cook, a spokesman for the state health department, in an email.
Attendees said Thursday that the state sent out a supplemental survey that included four restaurants that had been left off the initial form — Ouzo Bay, The Waterfront Hotel, Maximón and Italian Disco. All four restaurants are owned by Baltimore’s Atlas Restaurant Group.
It was unclear why the Atlas-owned restaurants were omitted in the first place. Macaulay Hammond, events director for Baltimore magazine, said Wednesday that the company had provided the Maryland health department with a full list of vendors from the event, including Atlas Restaurant Group, though the health department disputed that.
Alex Smith, owner of the Atlas Restaurant Group, wrote in a text message that he was “unaware” why either Baltimore magazine or the state would have left the company’s restaurants off the survey, adding “We answered any questions asked of us.”
Jesse Sandlin, owner of Sally O’s, said she was shocked to hear about the potential food poisoning outbreak. She learned about it while reading Reddit, an online forum where a number of commenters shared symptoms Tuesday. She said several of her staff members had been at the event, but none had become ill.
Robert Voss, owner of JBGB’s, said he had heard anecdotal stories of people getting sick after the event and wasn’t sure what had caused the illness. “I’m really confident it wasn’t us,” he said.
Layana said she knows of two other people who also became ill after attending the event, and now is sure that her sickness was caused by food poisoning. She said that after spending more than $100 per ticket, she was frustrated by what she called a lack of responsiveness from the organizer, and wanted compensation for both the entry price and the cost of COVID testing.
Locust Point resident Joseph Schenk, 32, said he suffered stomach cramps and loose stools for a week after attending the event, as well as blood in his bowel movements.
”I’m pretty sure it was that event,” he said, given that other friends who attended also had digestive problems afterward.
Given the number of vendors at the event, Schenk said he thought it would be difficult to determine what caused the possible outbreak.
“I tried everything there. It could have been anything,” he said. “Everything tasted fine.”
He was ill for about a week and even went to see a doctor after noticing his urine had turned pink. But Schenk said he is feeling better now.
Jake Denison, a 29-year-old Owings Mills resident, attended the event with his wife and three friends. Of them, one friend and his wife became sick after the event with symptoms of food poisoning.
He said he had not heard any communications from the event organizers and was left “disappointed.” Although his wife received an initial email from Baltimore magazine, she never received the survey from the state. After feeling sick for a week, Denison said, his wife is “finally back to normal.”
Hammond wrote in an email to The Banner: “We sincerely hope that anyone who has become ill begins feeling better soon.” The magazine directed further questions to health officials.
This article has been updated to include the supplemental survey sent by the Maryland Department of Health and a comment from Atlas Restaurant Group.
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