In early March, Alice Stockton-Rossini spent days reporting from a coronavirus containment zone in New Rochelle, N.Y., for the New York radio station 710 WOR, interviewing people who spoke into her mic, filing morning drive-time on-air reports.
In truth, her mind was elsewhere: Long Beach Island.
“All I could think about were two things: my mother’s 90th birthday on March 8 and my parents’ 70th anniversary,” Stockton-Rossini said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“I’m having this party for my mother,” she recalled. “I invited the whole church.”
She wasn’t thinking of the dangers. She wasn’t putting two and two together.
In all, 25 people went to Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Barnegat Light that Sunday for the morning service and for the luncheon that followed. Pastor Bill McGowen suggested congregants “fist pump” instead of shake hands for the sign of peace. Stockton-Rossini created a bit of a stir when she marched in with alcohol — champagne and orange juice for mimosas.
By the next day, her mom, Jackie Stockton, was sick. By that Thursday, she would be hospitalized. A few days later, Alice herself was waking up with chills. Her mom tested positive for the coronavirus. At least seven people at the party became ill, Stockton-Rossini said.
Now, two who attended the party have died after testing positive for coronavirus, including her mother’s next-door neighbor and friend, the cheerful LBI mainstay Sandy Medford, 76, and Ruth K. Reeder, 96, of Loveladies, a stalwart of the LBI Garden Club, who got someone to pick her up from assisted living to attend her friend Jackie’s birthday celebration.
“I find out my neighbor of 50 years, my mom’s best friend, died,” Stockton-Rossini said.
“Oh my ... God," she recalls thinking. “Did I bring this down here?”
A third person, the husband of a woman who became ill after attending Stockton’s party, has also passed away, according to that woman’s daughter, Laurie Kissinger. “He was confirmed positive and she is still quarantined,” she said on Facebook. She declined to disclose further details.
Dan Krupinski, a Long Beach Island health officer, confirmed Tuesday that the island was tracing this “community cluster” to Jackie Stockton’s birthday party.
He declined to comment further about the investigation but referenced earlier statements in LBI’s local SandPaper linking the party to at least four confirmed cases and said that “these additional cases resulted in other potential exposures, quarantined individuals, sick isolated individuals, two quarantined police officers, and three EMTs quarantined.” Some 90 people have been notified of possible exposure, he said.
"This exhibits how the spread can potentially be extensive and exponential,” he said in the statement. As of Tuesday, Ocean County listed 13 cases on Long Beach Island.
Stockton-Rossini, meanwhile, is still coming to grips with what she may have caused in her beloved island home, among her mother’s most cherished friends. Her mom was treated in the hospital with the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and was able to be discharged. But the party’s toll was growing.
“I can hardly bear it,” she said. "I had to tell my mother her best friend died.”
For her audience of conservative talk-radio listeners, Stockton-Rossini said she was careful not to sensationalize the coronavirus story, comparing this new threat — regrettably, in retrospect — to the flu in her on-air reports, wary of being accused by her skeptical audience of “making a big deal out of nothing.”
“We’re so sick and tired of being called fake news,” she said.
She had hesitated before heading to Westchester County, but, like many reporters then and since, went anyway.
“They’re sending me into the ... containment center in Westchester,” she said. “I was like, Yeah, man, I’ll go. It’s OK. I was like, Are we really going to be that bad?”
“If I had to do it over again, can I honestly say I wouldn’t have gone to Westchester? I probably would have worn a mask.
"If I had to do it over again, do you think I’d have a party for my mother? No.”
Going back and forth to what was then an epicenter, New Rochelle, interviewing people struggling with new restrictions, like the mom who had one kid in a school inside the zone, another outside, Stockton-Rossini acknowledged that she was experiencing what she felt like probably were cold symptoms. She got done with her week and headed to Costco for party supplies.
March 5 was her mother’s actual 90th birthday. Stockton-Rossini drove down to Ship Bottom, spent the day with her mom, happily drinking vodka tonics on the back deck, “thinking what a week," she said.
On March 8, at the church, a pretty white building in Barnegat Light with a steeple, wooden pews, and a model ship hanging from the ceiling, McGowen sang “Happy Birthday” to Stockton and three others. Thirteen people lined up to take Communion.
After falling sick with corona symptoms, Stockton-Rossini found she was unable to get tested. So she went back on the radio and talked about it. The lack of available testing is still something she wants to raise awareness of. “Everybody needs to be tested,” she said. “Not just people who are showing symptoms.”
Meanwhile, with her mom home from the hospital, her dad also recovering, her sister and husband also sick, she said she was finally going to be able to be tested on Tuesday afternoon in Ocean County.
Ruth Reeder’s son, Charles, knows his mom lived a full life. But as he thinks about the set of circumstances that led to her death — the party, falling ill a week later, her death March 25 — he wonders if it could have been avoided. Living in Boca Raton, Fla., he was unable to visit his mother in the hospital, or come up to be with family to grieve.
“My mother was 96,” he said by telephone. “She was failing, but she was still getting around, doing her thing. She was very, very active on the island for many years. Everyone knew her.”
Of Stockton-Rossini’s role, Reeder said: “I struggle with why she did it and how she did it. She actually was a reporter for a New York news station reporting on the COVID virus. She was involved in finding out more about it."
Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini said Sandy Medford, who died March 20, was one of his best friends. Medford was a lifelong resident of Long Beach Island and worked in salons and as a hostess in restaurants, including Family Restaurant and Charles Seafood Garden.
“As long as I’ve known her, she always had an incredible smile on her face,” Mancini said.
Stockton-Rossini, meanwhile, says that despite the painful vitriol directed at her on Facebook after the SandPaper story, she’s not one of the New Yorkers who came down to hide out on LBI in their second homes. Despite her high-profile job, she still maintains Ship Bottom as her primary home, around the corner from her parents.
“I accept responsibility for my actions,” she says.
Her parents’ 70th anniversary party, she said, is on hold.