RESTAURANT REPORT: Health officials say 70 sickened from norovirus outbreak

Updated: Feb. 23, 2017 at 9:29 PM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The Richmond City Health District says about 70 people became sick with norovirus in early February. The common denominator: epidemiologists say it was lunches served at different business events across the RVA, made by the same catering company.

Health officials say the caterer voluntarily shut down, cleaned everything in the kitchen and now has a clean bill of health.

Vomiting, fever, abdominal pains...the 70 people infected can tell you norovirus is not pleasant. It's a highly contagious virus that anyone can catch from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces.

It was Friday, Feb. 3 when the phone started ringing at Lola's Lunches and Box Lunch Bistro in Richmond. Owner Todd Butler says five employees called out sick. He says he told them to stay home and alerted the Health Department.

"An hour later, I got a call from one client that said they contracted it through our sandwiches, through our boxed lunches," said Butler. "As soon as I received that phone call, I immediately closed down for the day, closed down for a dinner party we had that evening. I also contacted the Health Department."

"The Health Department started getting reports of illnesses," said George Jones with the Richmond City Health District. "This was taking place in several localities, and epidemiologists, once they started an investigation, they realized the common factor was this catering business in Richmond."

In all, the Health Department says they tracked about 70 people who became sick. It was a shock for Butler, a food service veteran who is ServSafe Certified.

"I've been in the restaurant industry for 30 years, probably," said Butler. "Never had an incident, never had food poisoning, never had anything. I've been on the Hall of Fame Award at NBC a couple times."

The Health Department says it tested the catering employees and some tested positive for norovirus. Some of them had symptoms, some did not.

"They let me know you can have the norovirus with no symptoms for up to 48 hours prior," said Butler. "I think that is what had happened, was one of my employees, or someone was in there two days prior and didn't know they had it."

"You know, 18 particles on a pinhead can infect 1000 people. It's very, very contagious," explained Chesna Gore, Environmental Health Supervisor for the Richmond City Health District. "They were following the appropriate FDA employee health guidelines. When someone reports they are sick, they're excluded from the facility."

Butler walked us through the kitchen, pointing out every pan, utensil and surface that he said was disinfected with bleach and water. He says he asked employees to clean their homes, too.

"I shut down the whole kitchen and hired a crew to come in and clean as well," Butler told us.

Records show the Health Department inspected the kitchen four times that week and gave them a clean bill of health to reopen.

"We've gotten the all clear from the Health Department. They have come in, they've gone over and worked very well with my staff," said Butler.

The Health Department tells us it notified the people who received the lunches about the outbreak.

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