A Whitefield restaurant that served a crowded roomful of unmasked diners with no social distancing and even offered an open-air buffet is among 65 Maine businesses that have now been cited by Maine health authorities for violating rules intended to prevent COVID-19 infections.
A review of state data provided to the Portland Press Herald found that nearly a dozen new “imminent health hazard” citations were issued to Maine businesses in the first two weeks of December, and about 40 businesses have been cited since Oct. 1. The citations were issued by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Violators include many restaurants and other eateries. The most common violation was failure to require face masks on staff and customers. Face covering is a general requirement and has been shown to be the easiest and most effective way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
At least two establishments that broke Maine’s COVID-19 rules were awarded grants worth thousands of dollars from the state, for which they should have been ineligible because of their health violations.
Adrienne Goodwin, owner of River Lanes, a bowling alley in Bethel, said coronavirus restrictions are destroying her business. River Lanes was issued an imminent health hazard citation in August because its staff and customers were not wearing masks. Her operating license was suspended in November for another violation.
“Basically, I don’t agree with the restrictions,” Goodwin said. “I have no customers, because no one wants to bowl with these restrictions.”
It is unfair her business is treated the same as those in parts of the state such as Portland that have more COVID-19 cases, Goodwin said. The government should be judging restrictions on individual businesses based on their ability to operate safely, she added. Oxford County has the fourth-highest rate of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think after 10 months of this stuff, they need to start looking by county and by business, because we can’t survive this anymore,” Goodwin said.
River Lanes was awarded $40,169 from the second round of Maine Economic Recovery Grants in November, almost two months after its first health citation and weeks after its license was temporarily suspended. The grant was part of a $200 million small-business relief program funded through federal money provided to Maine last spring.
River Lanes should not have received the grant. To receive funds, businesses had to be in consistent compliance and not subject to any enforcement action with COVID-19 requirements.
“I figured they would be smart enough to check their own records,” Goodwin said. “Right now I’d be in the negative if I didn’t have that $40,000. I am just trying to keep the bank from taking my business.”
Applicants to the grant program have to sign a document that their information is truthful and accurate, and if it is not, they may need to repay the funds.
“This was an error,” said Kate Foye, communications director for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. “We have notified the business and will work with them through the process.”
Pat’s Pizza in Dover-Foxcroft was approved for a $36,000 loan reserved for hospitality businesses this month, but was cited for staff masking, signage and contract tracing violations in November. The business will not receive the grant, Foye said.
Pizzeria owner Bob Ade said staff members are required to wear masks. But he forgot his when he rushed to meet the health inspector and met inside the restaurant without it on, Ade said.
His staff collected contract tracing information for months, but gave up when customers – overwhelmingly regulars known by everyone there – started refusing to cooperate and gave fake names such as Mickey Mouse and Joe Biden instead, Ade said. The restaurant usually has public health notices posted, but they were taken down when the windows were cleaned, he said.
Restrictions make normal business impossible, and Ade said he thinks the blanket restrictions are unfair. Regulations should be determined county by county, like the state does for school safety, he said. Policing every regulation risks alienating the regulars that keep his business afloat, and now because of his slip-up, he lost the grant that would keep him going.
“I feel like everything I’ve tried to work for in my life is slowly being chipped away and taken away from me,” Ade said. “My business is down 62 percent from last year – we are trying to comply the best we can. I’m concerned about my business. I want to do what’s right.”
Officials from Maine’s Health Inspection Program cited 65 establishments for COVID-19- related violations between May and mid-December, according to DHHS records. About 40 percent of the citations were issued between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, as the state experienced a deadly surge of COVID-19 cases. In nearly every case, failure to require masks, most often on employees, was a reason for the citation.
“The number of complaints have gone down in recent weeks,” said Foye, of the economic development department. “We are seeing better compliance, but we all need to remain vigilant.”
One of the most egregious cases of flouting the rules involved Aunt Gin’s, a restaurant in Whitefield that was cited on Dec. 15. The citation notes state that the business’s staff members were “not wearing face coverings.” It also noted a “failure to implement measures to maintain six-foot distance between seated customers or customers in line, patrons not wearing face coverings, exceeding indoor occupancy limit,” and that the restaurant had a “buffet set up.”
The restaurant’s owners did not respond to two requests for an interview.
Establishments are warned and given information about how to follow the rules before being disciplined. Many warnings and inspections are triggered by citizen complaints submitted online to the state.
Two months ago, the state tightened the duration of health hazard citations to ensure compliance. Before November, when a business was cited, the record would expire if it agreed to comply and stayed that way for 30 days.
Now, a citation remains in effect for the duration of the public health emergency, Foye said. That means once an establishment is disciplined, another violation can lead to a license suspension until the state of emergency declared by Gov. Janet Mills is over.
To date, only businesses regulated by the state’s Health Inspection Program, which includes restaurants, have been disciplined for COVID-19 violations. But hundreds of others have been notified of likely noncompliance, and several have been formally warned by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
The department’s Quality Assurance and Regulation wing, which regulates stores that sell packaged food, has admonished more than 1,300 establishments by email after receiving complaints, said spokesman Jim Britt.
Eleven businesses – including five Walmart locations – have been given final compliance warnings, Britt added.
“Most, if not all, the businesses we contacted, upon receipt of a warning letter and a discussion with inspection staff, made measurable changes,” Britt said. “In most instances, these businesses didn’t understand what they were supposed to do and wanted to do the right thing.”
Walmart stores in Presque Isle, Calais, Skowhegan, Ellsworth and Augusta were issued identical final warning letters on Dec. 1 in an attempt to make them follow face covering rules.
“COVID-19 is a significant threat to public health. It is imperative that your business act responsibly to prevent further exacerbation of this public health emergency by requiring face coverings for all employees and customers,” the letter reads.
The stores were given 48 hours to correct the violations.
Letters were hand-delivered to the stores “on the same day, because this was a coordinated response to numerous and concurrent complaints regarding noncompliance at the five Walmart stores,” said Britt. The stores have since complied with the rules, he added.
Walmart Inc., based in Arkansas, has touted its health and safety measures during COVID-19 and in July became the first large retailer to require masks in its stores nationwide. Less than a week before the Maine locations were given final warnings, the company’s chief operating officer said in a press release that the company was focused on keeping staff and customers safe, including by masking, distancing, upgraded cleaning and doubling the “health ambassadors” in stores to remind people to follow safety standards.
Walmart did not respond when asked by email if it was complying with Maine’s regulations at the five stores and what it would do to prevent future lapses.
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