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Norovirus outbreak at Tri-Cities restaurant linked to drinks from ill bartender

How to wash fruits and vegetables to prevent norovirus

How to stop the spread of norovirus, a common food-borne virus also known as the winter vomiting bug or “stomach flu.” The tiny and highly infectious norovirus is the nation’s leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food. Fresh pr
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How to stop the spread of norovirus, a common food-borne virus also known as the winter vomiting bug or “stomach flu.” The tiny and highly infectious norovirus is the nation’s leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food. Fresh pr

A February outbreak of norovirus in the Tri-Cities has been linked to an infectious bartender and the drinks being served at an area restaurant.

The Benton Franklin Health District investigated the outbreak in mid February at 3 Eyed Fish restaurant and bar in Richland. The district released results of the investigation this week to help food and drink establishments prevent similar outbreaks.

The restaurant has followed steps recommended by the health district to ensure food safety after the outbreak was discovered.

At least 26 people fell ill with the virus this winter, likely because a sick bartender spread the virus to diners through preparation of bar drinks, according to the health district.

The outbreak came to light after two unrelated parties at the restaurant reported that most of the people they were with developed severe gastrointestinal sickness shortly after visiting the business.

Health district officials interviewed 31 people from 10 separate dining parties at the restaurant and found that 26 reported vomiting, diarrhea or cramps within 72 hours of eating at the restaurant.

Closed immediately

The restaurant immediately and voluntarily closed for at least 48 hours to let the virus run its course, said owner Cindy Goulet.

This short video explains what norovirus is, how it is spread, groups that are at high risk for severe disease and how you can protect yourself and loved ones from getting it.

Then the restaurant was required to clean and sanitize every surface in the facility and throw out opened food that could have been handled by an employee.

Goulet 3 Eyed Fish Richland
Cindy Goulet, owner of 3 Eyed Fish, said she immediately and voluntarily closed the restaurant in response to the February norovirus outbreak. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

“It definitely was an unfortunate incident, and we are on top of it,” Goulet said. “Unfortunately, norovirus hit the Tri-Cities very hard and found its way through our doors.”

Drink garnishes handled with hands

The health district found that two bartenders were infected with norovirus near the time restaurant patrons were infected.

One of the workers returned to work less than 12 hours after having diarrhea, even though current regulations require workers to wait 24 hours before returning to work.

Bartenders using their bare hands to add drink garnishes was identified as a potential issue that spread the virus, according to the health district. In addition, some bartenders slapped mint leaves between their bare palms to increase flavor before they were added to drinks.

Washington state requires tongs or gloves when workers handle ready-to-eat food.

Easy virus to spread

Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States. It causes 58 percent of foodborne illnesses.

Because very little of the virus is needed to spread the infection, even incidental hand contact with food could spread it, the health district said. Workers may spread the virus before they have symptoms.

The restaurant was asked to emphasize with its bartenders the need to use tongs or toothpicks for drink garnishes, change its procedures for mint and increase monitoring of bartenders during busy times, according to the health district.

The restaurant has had many meetings since then about health and safety, including emphasizing the right way to handle a drink garnish, Goulet said.

Health District officials have been to the restaurant many times at the restaurant’s request to provide education to employees, she said.

The health district has continued to monitor the restaurant with education and inspections to make sure improvements were effective.

Health district employees spent an estimated 300 hours of staff time on the investigation.

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Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.
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