Cronig’s Market will remain shuttered until at least Thursday, after a cluster of ten cases have now been identified in store employees, owner Steve Bernier said Monday.

The closure comes after the grocery store announced on Friday afternoon that it would be closed for the weekend, following earlier confirmation from health officials that three store employees had tested positive for the virus. By Sunday, Mr. Bernier had extended the closure an additional day, after the store’s case-count grew to nine, with six additional employees receiving positive test results over the weekend.

On Monday, the store’s tenth employee tested positive for the virus, pushing Mr. Bernier to keep the grocery’s doors closed until Thursday at the earliest.

Tisbury health agent Maura Valley wrote in an email to the Gazette Sunday that health officials were working closely with store owner Steve Bernier to contact trace and test all store employees. On Monday, Mr. Bernier confirmed the plan, noting that of the store’s 55 employees, all but 15 had already received results by Monday. The remaining cohort of employees have either made plans to be tested early this week, or are currently awaiting results of their tests, he said.

Close contacts only include individuals who have spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of a confirmed positive individual, meaning almost all grocery store customers would not be a close contact of a positive staff member, Ms. Valley said. 

Mr. Bernier hopes to re-open the store on Thursday with reduced hours — from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — through the weekend, with plans to resume regular store hours beginning Monday. The plan is pending approval from the Island boards of health, he said.

“So much of it is dependent on the health and well being of the staff that is in the process of being worked out. I just don’t have the answers, it’s too much data,” said Mr. Bernier Monday.

The historic, full-service Island grocery store has been closed since 3 p.m. Friday, when Mr. Bernier made the decision to shut down after after three employees tested positive between Wednesday and Friday. The decision was made in consultation with public health officials, who endorsed the closure although they did not specifically require it.

Cronig’s had already been closed on Sundays since late March, when Island grocery stores faced an unprecedented rush of business as the pandemic shut down other non-essential food services. The store’s smaller up-Island location has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic.

But with the precipitous spike in the store’s case count over the weekend, Mr. Bernier announced on Sunday that the flagship Vineyard Haven location would stay closed for an additional day as the remainder of the store’s employees continue to receive the result of their tests. With a tenth employee testing positive on Monday, that closure has been extended through Thursday.

All ten positive employees are experiencing only minor virus symptoms, Mr. Bernier said.

Ms. Valley had previously told the Gazette that none of the initial three employees who tested positive had worked since last Monday. Mr. Bernier did not know exactly when the seven remaining positive-testing employees had last been in the store.

Based on preliminary contact tracing last Friday, health officials did not initially believe that the first three cases reported at the store had been linked, with Ms. Valley and Mr. Bernier noting that at least two of the employees appeared to have external exposures to the virus.

But in a follow-up email Sunday, Ms. Valley confirmed that the nine cases constituted a cluster, signaling that it is likely they are connected although the exact circumstances of the cluster had not been determined, she wrote.

“It is considered a cluster but we haven’t completely figured out the connections,” Ms. Valley wrote. “The first three cases did not appear to be connected but as more cases developed it became apparent that it was a cluster. We’re working with Steve Bernier to get a better idea of what the connections are and how best to deal with it.”

On Monday, the picture came into slightly clearer focus. Mr. Bernier estimated that a third of the employees who tested positive at the store belonged to the same family, indicating that the cases were contracted and spread outside of the store. But he added that the infection had also spread among employees within the store itself.

“There are little clusters of connectivity that came in to the store, from personal lives and then once it was in here, it did travel from some people, but not everybody,” said Mr. Bernier. “There’s quite a puzzle there to try to sort out.”

According to Ms. Valley, Mr. Bernier and her are working closely with Island health officials to curtail any further spread of the infection. On Monday, Ms. Valley said that she did not know of any store customers — or other individuals — who had tested positive for the virus and been contact-traced back to the market. 

The recent cluster of cases at the store has also posed problems for staffing, with fewer employees available to cover necessary shifts. Short-staffing has been an ongoing challenge for Mr. Bernier since the pandemic began, with a dearth of employees available to work shifts and help with additional cleaning needed to run a business through the pandemic.

Mr. Bernier said plans to re-open Thursday would depend on the status of the outbreak at the store and the number of healthy employees available to staff the store.

“It’s definitely a people issue on the health side,” Mr. Bernier said. “And it’s a people issue on the staffing side to get the store open.”

Cronig’s Market has serviced Islanders as an essential grocery for more than a century. Mr. Bernier said it was his priority to keep his staff and customers safe considering the pandemic.

“I’m so sad, and hurt and frustrated, to not be able to serve the customers as we should,” Mr. Bernier said. “This caught us on the blind side. My apologies to everybody, but I had to make my decisions to their safety and well being first. Then we’ll get to the food piece as soon as we can.”