Health department gives Applebee's restaurant in Bellingham OK to reopen

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 14, 2014 

Applebee's closed

Applebee's restaurant on East Sunset Drive in Bellingham Wednesday morning, Feb. 12, 2014. The restaurant closed for several days when employees were sickened by a suspected norovirus outbreak.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Applebee's restaurant on East Sunset Drive was cleared to reopen Friday, Feb. 14, after completing more stringent measures to combat a suspected norovirus outbreak.

"They've taken all the steps that we've asked them to take," said Tom Kunesh, supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department's Food and Living Environment Program.

Norovirus is highly contagious and causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It can spread easily through contact with infected people, surfaces or food.

"Our franchisee is grateful for the support and collaborative nature of the Whatcom County Health Department in dealing with the virus issue in the Bellingham community that has, over the past week, impacted team members, guests and the restaurant," Applebee's spokesman Dan Smith said.

"The health department has advised us that the restaurant has gone above and beyond the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control," he added.

Kunesh agreed with that assessment.

The health department closed the restaurant twice during the past week after employees and restaurant-goers reported being sickened.

Sixteen employees have reported becoming ill - most of them on Feb. 6 and. 7.

The health department has received about 70 complaints from people who said they were sickened after eating at Applebee's.

The restaurant was first closed the morning of Feb. 7, after inspectors heard about gastrointestinal illness among workers.

Cleaning and other measures meant to stop the spread of the illness were taken, and the restaurant was allowed to reopen Sunday. It was closed again on Tuesday when two more employees reported being ill.

"We will be monitoring the restaurant and our complaint log and if evidence of additional transmission shows up then they will be shut down again," Kunesh said. "Obviously, we're hoping that the work that's been done will have completely stopped the transmission."

County health officials allowed the restaurant to reopen Sunday after a 48-hour closure to help stop the spread of the virus. Other measures taken then included extensive cleaning and sterilization of the restaurant, throwing away food that may have been contaminated, requiring ill workers to stay home for at least 48 hours, and screening employees before they could come back to work.

Similar measures were taken during the second closure - but they were tougher.

All employees were screened for symptoms that included nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. They were told to stay home if they had those symptoms in the past 72 hours, or if someone in their household or with whom they have been in close contact has experienced those symptoms in the past 72 hours.

There also was more extensive sterilizing and cleaning of walls, floors, counters and equipment that included using a cleaning solution of about 1 cup of bleach per gallon of water.

Items on tables that could be shared among patrons, such as ketchup bottles, were thrown away, as were menus, ticket books used by the wait staff, and open liquor bottles touched by bartending staff.

"It was pretty dramatic," Kunesh said.

Kunesh has said the health department might never know what caused the possible norovirus cluster at Applebee's, adding that gastrointestinal illness had been circulating in the community in recent weeks.

STOP THE SPREAD

Tom Kunesh, of the Whatcom County Health Department, is reminding people to take steps to prevent the spread of norovirus because the illness continues to circulate in the community.

"We definitely have elevated viral gastroenteritis in the community. Whatever we can do to stop the next exposure would be great," he said.

People who are ill with vomiting and diarrhea should:

-- Stay home. Avoid contact with other people until at least 48 hours after full recovery.

-- Don't cook food for other people until at least 48 hours after complete recovery, which Kunesh described as when those who have been sick feel like themselves again.

-- Don't use cloth towels to dry your hands. Switch to disposable paper towels during the illness.

-- Wash your hands often.

Norovirus is difficult to combat because it can spread easily through contact with infected people, surfaces or food.

Additional information, including how to clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces, is at cdc.gov/norovirus and at doh.wa.gov (type "norovirus" into the search window).

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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