County shuts down Bartolino’s and three other restaurants that violated indoor dining ban

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Photo by Erin Achenbach

Bartolino’s South has erected a tent outside to provide outdoor seating. But until the county cited the restaurant three times and shut it down, the restaurant stayed open inside despite an indoor dining ban.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

After defying St. Louis County’s indoor dining ban for two weeks, Bartolino’s South said it would comply with the mandate and shut down indoor dining so that it can keep curbside and takeout options open.

The St. Louis County Department of Public Health, assisted by municipal and St. Louis County Police officers, shut down Bartolino’s South and four other restaurants last week that violated an indoor dining ban that went into effect Nov. 17 to combat the surge in hospitalizations of COVID-19.

Each restaurant was given three written warnings prior to the shutdown Dec. 1. Four of the five restaurants received notification that their permits to operate were suspended. 

Those restaurants – Bartolino’s South, Final Destination, OT’s Bar and  Satchmo’s  – were ordered to immediately cease operations. Each establishment has the right to ask for a hearing before the suspension becomes final. The fifth establishment, Acapulco, was later given notice of suspension, the county said.

Bartolino’s posted on Facebook that the restaurant had agreed to abide by the mandate in order to open. It also has a heated outdoor tent.

If any of the five establishments continue to violate the order by operating, DPH will seek a court order enforcing the closure. The county went to court in the spring to force the closure of House of Pain Gym in Maryland Heights, which opened despite a stay-at-home order that shuttered all nonessential businesses.

The union that represents the county inspectors who have been visiting the restaurants said Monday that the inspectors had been threatened while at the restaurants.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local No. 610 called for “common decency” and said that threats to inspectors were investigated by the health department and turned over to the police.

“Our members are hard-working professionals who are being subjected to physical threats and intimidation. That is unacceptable,” said Teamsters 610 Principal Officer Dan Thacker in a statement.

The group’s Business Representative, Jeff Hall, President of Local No. 610, said, “We just hope people will treat our members the way they would want to be treated themselves.”

“It’s disappointing when we have people threaten our health inspectors,” County Executive Sam Page said at his briefing Wednesday.

South County Italian restaurant Bartolino’s South has been the ringleader of a group of restaurants suing the county to challenge the indoor dining ban, noting the sweeping effects of the pandemic on the restaurant industry and that closing indoors could lead to layoffs or shutdowns of restaurants at the key holiday time that restaurants count on each year. The restaurant partnered with the Missouri Restaurant Association on the suit. 

Threats to restaurant inspectors are investigated by the Department of Public Health and ultimately turned over to the Police Department.

DPH staff delivered a food inspection form with the following language to each establishment:

This facility’s permit has been suspended per St. Louis County Food Code, Section 8-304.40.

The operation of this Food Establishment constitutes a hazard to public health due to failure to adhere to the Safer at Home Public Health Order. The facility is ordered to cease operations, effective immediately at time of delivery of this notice, 12/1/2020.

The permit holder of this facility may make a written request for a hearing within ten (10) days after notice of suspension and the Director shall provide a hearing within ten (10) days after the request. If no request for a hearing is filed within ten (10) days, the suspension becomes final.

When a suspension becomes final, the person whose permit was suspended may reapply for a permit under the Food Code, Section 8-302.13 after the expiration of sixty (60) days.

DPH issued a public health order last month banning indoor dining “in order to protect the safety of county residents,” the department said in a news release.

“We know that masks work in vastly reducing the chance of spreading COVID-19 to others because they limit the sharing of air droplets and aerosols that carry the coronavirus. Indoor dining is a super-spread enabler because people take off their masks when they eat or drink,” the department continued. 

According to the CDC as well as numerous independent studies, eating indoors poses significant risk of spreading COVID-19, the department said. DPH contact tracers have identified a “number of clusters of cases linked to eating or drinking indoors,” the department said. A recent spot check showed that more than half of 74 restaurant workers who contracted COVID-19 had worked while infectious.

Moreover, several studies demonstrate indoor dining with anyone outside one’s household is unsafe. COVID-positive patients were twice as likely as negative patients to eat at a restaurant in the two weeks prior to their diagnosis, one CDC study found. Also, increased spending at restaurants and bars predicts where COVID-19 outbreaks are likely to be found two or three weeks later, another study has found.