INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported that Huse Culinary, operator of the legendary St. Elmo Steak House in downtown Indianapolis, has confirmed the death of an employee while the restaurant’s doors were temporarily closed due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among its staff.
“St. Elmos (sic) has made a workplace-fatality report to IOSHA,” read a statement to FOX59 from an agency spokesperson. “IOSHA is following up with the employer to gather more information.”
This past weekend, at the anticipated height of the Final Four dining demand while the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is in town, Huse Culinary announced it would be closed.
St. Elmo reopened for limited seating Monday evening.
“We recently learned that nine employees have tested positive for COVID,” read a statement released at 11:09 p.m. Saturday. “Out of an abundance of caution, St. Elmo’s has made the decision to close the establishment and conduct a thorough, deep cleaning of the restaurant. While we regret not being able to serve our customers, the safety and well-being of our employees and our guests is our top priority.”
Friday afternoon, St. Elmo’s 1933 Lounge was late opening its doors following what appeared to be a thorough cleaning as wait staff arrived from other Huse Culinary restaurants to serve customers.
Over the weekend, social media posts referred to the death of a longtime employee, leading to Monday’s IOSHA response and an updated statement from Huse Culinary.
“We are continuing to work with the Marion County Public Health Department on how and when it will be safe to reopen St. Elmo Steak House,” the statement quotes CEO Craig Huse. “We would like to thank Dr. Virginia Caine and the Marion County Public Health Department for providing us with invaluable guidance and best practices to safely reopen. With Dr. Caine’s direction and plan, we have conducted a professional deep cleaning and sanitization of the restaurant and provided employees with the highest and most accurate level of testing.
“All returning employees will have a negative PCR test result from a Marion County Public Health Department facility or already be fully vaccinated in order to return safely to work. It is our understanding that the Marion County Public Health Department has not identified any potential exposure risk to customers based on their contact tracing.”
Huse’s statement concludes that out of concern for the privacy of its nine employees who tested positive for COVID-19, they will not be identified.
A spokesperson for Huse Culinary did not respond to additional questions from FOX59 regarding confirmation of the employee’s death reported to state officials, to what extent MCPHD has conducted contact tracing at St. Elmo, whether employees at other Huse restaurants such as Harry & Izzy’s were transferred to work at St. Elmo during the time of the infection breakout and if Huse Culinary employees at all locations would be tested, and if more employees had tested positive since the statement issued late Saturday night.
Late Monday afternoon, MCPHD issued the following statement:
“On Saturday evening, April 3, the Marion County Public Health Department was notified that St. Elmo Steak House would be voluntarily and temporarily closing as a result of multiple employees testing positive for COVID-19. Since that time, the Health Department has been working with restaurant operators to contact trace potential exposures amongst staff or to customers, as well as provide guidance on thorough cleaning of the restaurant and safety measures for re-opening, including negative PCR test results for staff before they come back to work.
“The Public Health Orders that are in place in Marion County are based on local data and global best practices, and are intended to mitigate the spread of the virus in our community. At this time, the contact tracing investigation related to St. Elmo Steak House staff has not identified any potential exposure risk to patrons based on the CDC guideline of 15 minutes of un-masked exposure. We continue to urge our community members to take advantage of the critical protection offered from wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, and receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.”
The closure of St. Elmo, following a glowing CBS Saturday Morning profile, that led to the cancellation of dinner reservations Sunday and Monday came the day after it was announced that a University of Alabama basketball fan died of COVID-19 after returning home following his stay in Indianapolis to attend the tournament.
Luke Ratliff, 23, was known on the Alabama campus as “Fluffopotamus.” He was a legend in the student section at Crimson Tide basketball games and was due to graduate this spring.
A search of Ratliff’s twitter account indicates he arrived in Indianapolis on March 19 and attended the Iona-Alabama game at Hinkle Fieldhouse the next day.
The day of the opening round game was also when he stopped into Shapiro’s Delicatessen just south of downtown to order a takeout meal, which came as a surprise to owner Brian Shapiro when he was told by FOX59.
“He did not eat in the restaurant. He came in and got a takeout meal. He was fully masked,” said Shapiro after an employee viewed a photograph of Ratliff and confirmed he waited on him that day.
As for claims that MCPHD has undertaken contact tracing to chart Ratliff’s journeys through Indianapolis, Shapiro said, “I have not had any government official approach us or talk to me about any type of contact tracing.”
Monday morning, when first asked by FOX59 about tracking Ratliff’s movements through Indianapolis in the days before he died of COVID-19, a health department spokesperson wrote:
“Based on a recent news story, the Marion County Public Health Department and the Indiana State Department of Health reached out to the Alabama Department of Public Health to determine if anyone in Indianapolis may have been exposed to COVID-19 by any Alabama resident who visited Indianapolis in recent days. We are conducting an investigation following the county and state’s standard contact tracing procedures.”
Further examination of Ratliff’s twitter feed indicates he attended the Alabama-Maryland game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse March 22 after dining at Maialina in Fountain Square the day before, and then returned to Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 28 to witness UCLA defeat the Tide on the Bruins’ march to the Final Four.
A tweet shows Ratliff and friends at an undisclosed Brothers restaurant that day and Ratliff at an Airbnb on March 20.
When contacted by FOX59 about Ratliff’s presence in Hinkle Fieldhouse five days before his death from coronavirus complications, Butler University issued a statement that read:
“We don’t have any information on Luke Ratliff. It’s my understanding that contact tracing is being led by the Marion County Health Department.”
The Indiana State Department of Health also referred FOX59 to MCPHD for information regarding contact tracing of Ratliff’s contacts and whereabouts in Indianapolis.
Dr. Caine will join Mayor Joe Hogsett for a briefing Tuesday morning regarding Marion County’s current COVID-19 status.
During our noontime Monday interview, Brian Shapiro said he wasn’t waiting that long for answers.
“It is a concern that I had no idea that he’d been to Shapiro’s,” said Shapiro, who indicated that 70% of his staff have been vaccinated. “I will contact my health department representative and let her know.”