PORTLAND, Maine — A customer who patronized Pat’s Pizza in the Old Port neighborhood said she reported the eatery to state health officials for not enforcing coronavirus guidelines on indoor dining about a month before the outbreak hit the restaurant, infecting at least 10 people.
Ann-Marie Keene of Portland said staff members did not stop unmasked customers from walking around common areas of the Market Street pizzeria when she visited there with a co-worker on Sep. 16.
Keene said she reported the experience at Pat’s Pizza — which she called “disgusting” — to state health officials the following morning. Maine’s Health Inspection Program cited the restaurant on Sep. 22 for “customers not wearing masks.”
After receiving a “written warning” from health inspectors, Mike Lizotte, a co-owner of the restaurant, said he hired five security staff for Friday and Saturday night shifts to “walk around and tell patrons to sit down and wear a mask.”
“Code enforcement has been in every Friday and Saturday to make sure all protocols are followed and have been very happy with us and what we are doing,” he said.
But it still didn’t stop the outbreak there.
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On Wednesday, Pat’s Pizza in Portland closed indefinitely after an employee and nine regulars of the restaurant tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Lizotte.
In a week with record-breaking numbers of new virus cases reported in the state, Gov. Janet Mills said Wednesday that Mainers must take precautions because “lives are at stake here.”
But she underscored that the state’s economy is also at stake, urging businesses to follow safety protocols during this pandemic to keep Mainers healthy and businesses operating.
Businesses found in noncompliance of pandemic safety guidelines are typically issued an “imminent health hazard” warning. If a business refuses to comply and “continues to operate in a way that threatens public health,” it will be shut down, according to the health inspection program.
The state revoked operating licenses at Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel for repeatedly flouting pandemic safety guidelines in May and again over the summer. Ultimately a court ordered the brewery to implement standard safeguards, such as installing Plexiglas shields, requiring employees to wear masks whenever they come into contact with others and setting tables and booths 6 feet apart before the business was allowed to reopen.
Keene said she and her friend were seated upstairs at a table across from the bar, and were the only ones in the restaurant who wore masks when they weren’t seated at a table, despite CDC guidelines requiring face coverings be worn inside the common areas of restaurants.
“We ordered beers and then drunken unmasked patrons are coming to our table being loud and dumb,” she said.
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The bartender, who worked behind a plexiglas screen, periodically removed her mask while she was working, Keene said, and did not tell the eatery’s patrons to wear masks or maintain social distancing.
Keene, who works at Maine Medical Center, said she did not blame the bartender for failing to control customers’ unsafe behavior inside the restaurant.
“It’s not entirely up to her. It’s up to the owners and bosses,” Keene said, adding that workers “risk actual termination if they do speak up.”
The surge may imperil the state’s recent plan to loosen restrictions on bars, restaurants and tasting rooms on Monday.
While officials have not announced any delay of the reopening plan, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah urged Mainers on Friday to stay safe.
“Take action now. For your sake, and for the sake of your community, wear a mask and stay apart. This is serious,” he said.