Wallingford health officials investigated 75 COVID-19 complaints since March

Wallingford health officials investigated 75 COVID-19 complaints since March

WALLINGFORD — It was perhaps common before the pandemic for patrons to move restaurant tables closer together, but now that could cause problems when the health inspector arrives.

The town health department received three complaints about Half Moon Cafe, 50 N. Main St., since mid-March for COVID-related issues, including tables not being situated at least six feet apart.

Half Moon owner Stefano Panno said he takes safety precautions seriously and that everyone, including customers, needs to be responsible.

Most of Half Moon’s eat-in customers are served outside in a dining area in Simpson Court. Diners have moved tables out of the sun or to sit in a larger group, which violates social distancing practices of staying at least six feet apart.

“All this regulation, there’s so much confusion about, that it’s absolutely absurd,” Panno said. “There’s no way that a restaurant can be perfect.”

Sanitarians made site visits on May 19 and June 24 following complaints from the public.

According to the complaint reports, sanitarian Vanessa Bautista reviewed guidelines on mask use with Panno and staff at the restaurant on May 19. Sanitarian Brittany Nappi visited on June 24 and spoke with Panno about glove use.

Panno said a complaint about employees in the kitchen not wearing masks was about him. He said it’s not practical or safe for him to wear a mask all day in front of a hot stove.

“Sometimes I cannot stay for hours with the mask in front of a (hot) stove,” he said. “It’s almost impossible.”

On July 2, Bautista did a walk-through of the kitchen, dining area and outdoor seating. She told Panno to move tables farther apart to a six-foot minimum, the complaint report stated.

She also asked the server about not changing gloves from table to table. The server told Bautista that when she picks up dirty dishes from tables, she goes inside, washes her hands and puts on a new pair of gloves, and then sets meals on tables, according to the complaint report.

“We’re struggling and trying to survive,” Panno said. “We have half of the business we used to have. And it’s no easy task right now, no easy task at all.”

Total complaints

As of last week, local health department officials had investigated 75 complaints related to COVID-19 safety guidelines since March, with grocery stores and restaurants receiving the most attention.

The most common complaints were for improper use of face masks, missing gloves or capacity violations.

“Once we receive a complaint,” Health Director Stephen Civitelli said, “we have to validate the nature of the concern and then determine the course of action based on our findings during the inspection.”

Complaints are recorded and assigned to an inspector. Inspectors utilize masks on all of their visits and hand sanitizer is available to staff, Civitelli said.

How inspectors handle COVID-19 complaints is based on Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders. Based on how the executive order was written, complaints are cited under the state Public Health Code in the section for general nuisance complaints.

Complaints started rolling in March 17, the day after Lamont closed indoor dining and limited restaurants and bars to serving take-out only via executive order No. 7D.

Lamont issued executive order No. 7H on March 20, which defined essential and non-essential businesses and ordered non-essential businesses to close by March 23.

Under Lamont’s reopening plan, restaurants were able to resume outdoor dining, within state guidelines, beginning May 20 and indoor dining at 50 percent capacity on June 17. Hair salons and barbershops were allowed to reopen June 1.

Many of the complaints came early in the shutdown, when business owners were still interpreting the new state rules. The complaints included a range of issues, from not following personal protective equipment guidelines at restaurants, to churches offering communion and drinking from the same cup, to non-essential gyms, hair salons and offices operating when they were supposed to be closed, to overcrowding at the dog park, to a landlord showing an occupied apartment to prospective renters.

Most of the single complaints, the vast majority, were resolved with a call or visit from a town sanitarian, but some were advised that further violations would become police matters.

“Multiple infractions may result in a citation or police department referral due to the nature of the complaint,” Civitelli said. Enforcement of the violations is in the supplemental guidance in the governor’s executive orders, he added.

Seven complaints, one store

The health department investigated seven complaints about Connecticut Fresh Food & Produce Market, 920 S. Colony Road, made between April 1 and June 22.

The complaints were about employees, management or customers not wearing masks in the store, or employee masks that did not fit properly. There were also complaints about customers not practicing social distancing, especially around the deli, and the store exceeding a 50 percent capacity limit.

According to the most recent complaint report, issued June 22, Nappi said that she told a store manager “next time it will be a police matter.”

Becky Hulse, one of the store managers, said Tuesday that everyone who works in the store wears masks, including a few with asthma, whom health officials have said don’t have to wear masks but they choose to anyway.

“If they slip, they put them right back up,” she said. “This is new to us, just like it is to everybody else, so if we have a question or a problem, we go to the health department and they guide us on how to take care of any issue we may have, with anybody complaining about anything.”

The majority of customers wear masks, but store employees can’t ask why if a customer comes in without one as per state law, she said.

Lamont’s executive order 7BB, issued April 17, states that while face masks or coverings must be worn in public, they are not required if wearing one would impact a person’s health or safety due to a medical condition.

If a person declines to wear a mask due to a medical condition, “such person shall not be required to produce medical documentation verifying the stated condition,” the order states.

As far as maintaining 50 percent capacity, Hulse said the store is “always under capacity.”

“We have people checking all the time,” she said. “We know our capacity and we’re well under it.”

Keeping shoppers safe

Sanitarians investigated three complaints about Stop & Shop, 930 N. Colony Road, that were made between April 14 and July 6.

Nappi visited the store on April 14. According to her report, a store official said that gloves and masks were available for all, and while some were wearing the PPE, many choose not to. All registers are supplied with spray disinfectant and hand sanitizer, and plexiglass was installed at registers, as well, the store official stated.

Store officials also told Nappi that every hour, the store counts the number of customers in the building and logs it into a chart and that they were “following all CDC protocol,” the report stated.

Nappi performed a full store inspection June 5 after an undisclosed complaint related to COVID-19 and stated in her report that she spoke with both managers on duty at the time about it.

On July 6, Nappi visited Stop & Shop again to investigate a complaint that the store was over 50 percent capacity, that the aisle arrows indicating one-way traffic were too small and a general concern about bagging.

Nappi spoke to a store manager about the capacity issue and received the customer capacity charts, concluding that she didn’t see a public health issue.

She noted in the report that the arrows are at the end of the aisle and that if customers bring their own bags, they must bag their groceries themselves.

“Stop & Shop takes the health and safety of our customers and associates very seriously,” spokesperson Maura O’Brien said via email last week.

“We are aware of a small number of complaints filed regarding COVID-19-related measures at our store located at 930 N. Colony Road in Wallingford,” she said. “In each instance, we worked directly with the health department, which found no public health concerns” and that the store “was in compliance with CDC guidelines as well as local and state mandates.”

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores

"All this regulation, there’s so much confusion about, that it’s absolutely absurd. There’s no way that a restaurant can be perfect."

-Stefano Panno, Half Moon Cafe owner
Stefano Panno, owner of Half Moon Coffee & Grille Cafe, and cook Giuseppe Marra work in the kitchen of the 50 N. Main St. restaurant in Wallingford. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
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