By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The Fairhaven Board of Health on 10/26/20 voted to suspend the food service license for Bayside Lounge, giving restaurant owners Dennis Arsenault and Kevin Vasconcellos 48 hours to come up with a “COVID plan” to bring the establishment into compliance with Massachusetts restaurant safety standards to address COVID-19.
Interim Health Agent Sarah Dupont said the BOH Office received complaints about the Sconticut Neck Road restaurant for overcrowding, patrons not practicing social distancing, and patrons not wearing face coverings while not seated. She said after the first complaint on 7/27 she “reached out” to John Dallen, occupational safety and health inspector for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, and has been working with him ever since.
According to Mr. Dallen, he received the 7/27 complaint, forwarded it to the Fairhaven Board of Health, and a subsequent inspection of the Bayside did result in observations of those allegations, which the state reviewed with the Bayside owners. Mr. Dullen said a second complaint was filed on 8/7 for the very same issues as the 7/27 complaint, resulting in a written warning from the Massachusetts Division of Standards on 8/12.
“Then a month later we had two complaints within a week,” said Mr. Dutton, alleging the same violations, and again the issue was reviewed with the owners. Another written warning was triggered after outdoor entertainers at the Bayside were observed not following the guidelines for outdoor performances. There were also complaints about patrons eating and drinking around the billiard table, patrons not social distancing, and patrons without masks. Mr. Dallen said he issued a second written warning that day of the meeting, along with a civil citation of up to $1,800.
Fairhaven Police Officer Kevin Chasse said he responded to an anonymous call to the Bayside on 10/17 at 12:30 a.m. and saw about 150 people inside the restaurant. He described the difficulty he had moving across the room toward the bar due to overcrowding and observed some of the same conditions listed in prior complaints. He said he observed only about two patrons with takeout food containers inside the bar area.
“I didn’t see any food [or] any fresh food or anything like that,” said Officer Chasse, which is required in order to consume alcohol.
Mr. Arsenault said the restaurant was anticipating a busy evening on 10/17 because “a few places in town closed and we share the same customers as those establishments that were closed.”
He said he hired a doorperson for that night to keep a head count. According to Mr. Arsenault, there were 50 patrons inside and 24 in the outside dining area.
“Basically, the police report looks like a blatant disregard to the rules and regulations of COVID…. To my knowledge, it started to rain. Everyone from outside came inside, and that’s when we kind of lost control of the situation…. Apparently, that’s when the police were called…. People were trying to pay their tab and whatnot,” said Mr. Arsenault. “That’s basically what happened.”
Dealing with COVID-19 has been a challenge, said Mr. Arsenault, for the business and for the customers.
“The customers sometimes don’t want to comply. They’ve had enough, they’re fed up, and we understand that, and we do the best that we can; unfortunately, we’ve had to turn people away….”
Mr. Arsenault said he believes some of the complaints might have been made out of spite from customers who were turned away or shutoff for not continuing to order food with their alcohol.
“We’re looking for guidance… but we’ve addressed the issues with the state as well,” said Mr. Arsenault. “We have some violations with the state that we need to respond to within 48 hours.… it’s a tough situation all around.”
“This isn’t the first complaint, and the state has continuously been in contact with you,” said BOH member Geoff Haworth. “It doesn’t seem like you guys are kind of getting it — kind of getting there yet.”
“We haven’t just been getting complaints and doing nothing about it,” replied Mr. Arsenault. “We have tried to change things through the complaints.”
“It seems like it’s continuous,” said Mr. Haworth. “I have a timeline here.”
“It may be continuous,” said Mr. Arsenault, “but … we’ve improved … since it started, and this is a fluid situation. It continues and it changes and we’re trying to change with it. We’re not trying to blatantly break the laws of COVID. We don’t want to see anyone get sick, and we haven’t had anyone get sick.” He continued, “Others (restaurants) have had to close down and we haven’t and we’re lucky because of that.”
The reason for the rise in COVID-19 cases in Fairhaven is because “people are getting lax,” said Mr. Haworth. “We need to make sure that we find a way to educate and keep compliance … because we’re going to continue to get worse and worse.”
“We want to get you there so that you’re completely compliant,” said Mr. Haworth. “It sounds like you don’t have a correct COVID plan.”
He said the board does not want to shut businesses down, but that “it’s my job to enforce it,” and added, “We’ve got to have an equal playing field for everybody.”
Mr. Haworth and Mr. Dallen explained the regulations surrounding the requirement of food with an alcoholic drink order, saying that a burger and a beer is fine, but if a customer finishes that and then orders two more beers, “That’s not fine,” said Mr. Haworth.
“So, all the rest of the restaurants are in violation now,” said Pamela Francis from the Bayside Lounge.
“You may be right,” BOH member Michael Ristuccia told her, “but right now all those other restaurants aren’t in the room; right now, you are, so let’s just keep it there.”
He then lectured the room on the importance of running a business during the pandemic.
“As the Board of Health, we’re not here to punish you to any degree,” continued Mr. Ristuccia. “We’re here to educate you as to what you need to do, but you need to educate yourselves as well. It’s not our job solely to educate you….”
Mr. Ristuccia said some businesses are following some of the rules while others are not. “But those situations like the one that was created here are what puts … the town back in the red, which affects everyone. If there were one person in your business on the 17th of October that tested positive two days later, think of how many people he’s infected to this date. That’s what we need to try and stop.
“You need to get a good COVID plan together,” Mr. Ristuccia concluded.
“Key is education and have a COVID plan that the whole staff knows, that everybody knows, so that they’re all on the same page,” said BOH Chairperson Peter DeTerra.
Mr. Vasconcellos expressed some confusion over the board’s suggested 48-hour shutdown, given that the state had only fined the Bayside and was not threatening to shut it down. Mr. Haworth told him that he could go right over to the Bayside and find them in noncompliance right at that moment, so taking two days to come up with a plan would be the better option for them.
Former BOH member Jeannine Lopes was allowed to ask a question via Zoom after Mr. DeTerra cautioned her to “please stick to the agenda.”
Ms. Lopes asked him: “Are you going to recuse yourself for the vote regarding the Bayside? Because you’re in violation as well, and [you have] a complaint with the state, so I don’t think it’s fair …for you to take a vote.”
“I’m not in violation, thank you,” said Mr. DeTerra. “I don’t know what that’s about.”
Mr. Haworth said the 48-hour shut down was not “punitive,” rather it was better than an actual cease and desist order. He then mentioned an establishment that was “closed for two weeks,” something he wanted to prevent this time. He motioned to temporarily suspend the food permit, effective immediately, and then hold a meeting on Thursday, 10/29, at 9:00 a.m., which the board approved.
In a followup email, Mr Haworth would not name the establishment that was shut down, but said it was for not having a food permit to begin with. When they got one, they were allowed to open. He also said that the Bayside received numerous complaints, versus other establishments.
“I guess the answer is some establishments comply and others don’t forcing the BOH to take action,” said Mr. Haworth in the email in answer to the question of why the Bayside situation seemed to be handled differently than other complaints.
In other matters, Fairhaven is bracing for its potential third consecutive week in the “red” zone with a high risk COVID-19 designation from the Massachusetts Department of Health.
Fairhaven currently has 24 active COVID-19 cases reported within the last two weeks.
Ms. Dupont said that if Fairhaven does remain in the red for a third week, then the town would regress back to Phase III Step 1 of the Commonwealth’s reopening Plan. If that happens, some venues would have to close and others would have their capacities reduced.
Ms. Dupont said Fairhaven’s status will be announced on 10/29 and if the town is downgraded to Phase III Step 1, then she will be contacting local businesses to inform them that it would go into effect on Monday, 11/2.
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