BELLINGHAM - Applebee's restaurant on East Sunset Drive closed a second time Tuesday, Feb. 11, because two more employees have been sickened in a suspected norovirus outbreak.
It's not known when the Whatcom County Health Department will allow the restaurant to reopen.
Norovirus is highly contagious and causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. A total of 15 employees have reported becoming ill - most of them on Thursday, Feb. 6, and Friday, Feb. 7.
The health department first closed the Bellingham restaurant Friday morning, after inspectors heard about gastrointestinal illness among workers.
County officials allowed the restaurant to reopen around noon Sunday after a 48-hour closure to help stop the spread of the virus. Other measures included extensive cleaning and sterilization of the restaurant, and requiring ill workers to stay home for at least 48 hours.
But the health department closed the Applebee's again Tuesday because it "was no longer confident that transmission of this illness has been interrupted," said Tom Kunesh, supervisor for the health department's Food and Living Environment Program.
"Assuming the average incubation period for a norovirus-type agent, that would put their exposure potentially to the time when they were working at the restaurant on Sunday," he said of the two new cases.
The restaurant has been cooperating with the health department and will continue to do so to ensure everyone's safety, Applebee's spokesman Dan Smith said.
"Our franchisee is committed to staying closed until they and the health department agree that the restaurant is safe," Smith said.
"Our franchisee is a part of this neighborhood. We're just as concerned as our guests with how this is affecting our community," he added.
It's unknown exactly how many restaurant-goers may have been sickened before both closures, although the health department has received 27 calls.
All but two calls were from patrons, and all but one reported eating at the restaurant on Wednesday or Thursday just before the first 48-hour closure, which is the window when an infected person could transmit the illness.
Before the two new cases, the last onset of employee illness was Friday morning.
In the United States, norovirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis, and can be especially serious for the elderly and the very young, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Norovirus can spread easily through contact with infected people, surfaces or food.
Kunesh has said he didn't know what caused the illnesses when he ordered the first closure Friday morning but was preparing for a worst-case scenario by reacting as if it were norovirus.
Based on the symptoms, the incubation period, and reports of secondary transmission as household members who came into contact with those who were sickened became ill themselves later, he has since said that "this outbreak has characteristics of a norovirus outbreak."
Kunesh said the health department might never know what caused the cluster at the restaurant, adding that gastrointestinal illness has been circulating in the community.
"We have had more than the usual numbers of complaints about nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in past week or two weeks," he said.
"We're not certain that those illnesses are associated with Applebee's," he added of the two employees.
As for what the restaurant might do next, Kunesh said that's still being determined.
But those steps could include what the restaurant did during the first closure - keeping sick workers at home, cleaning and sanitizing, and throwing away food that may have been contaminated.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org .