Contoocook Covered Bridge Restaurant fights to stay alive following hep A cases last month
From left, Bob Pelletier, Gery Blue, David Parker, all from Contoocook, and Dennis Barnard, of Hopkinton, are regular patrons at the Covered Bridge Restaurant and said the hepatitis incident did not stop them from visiting, when the restaurant was open. The Covered Bridge Restaurant is open again about a week after a second employee tested positive for hepatitis A back in August. The Contoocook restaurant saw a decline in business following the incident which resulted in health officials advising vaccination for customers.
JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff
Vanessa Sandberg, left, and Lisa Baynes, employees at the Covered Bridge Restaurant, work as bartenders to fill orders Friday evening, September 6, 2013. The restaurant is open again about a week after a second employee tested positive for hepatitis A back in August. The Contoocook restaurant saw a decline in business following the incident which resulted in health officials advising vaccination for customers.
JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff
The word “Open” fluttered on the red, white and blue flag outside the Contoocook Covered Bridge Restaurant in the early afternoon breeze.
But only one table in the dining room – the sole window booth occupied during the end of the lunch hour – hinted the words on the flag were true.
The rest of the dining room was empty.
Last month, two employees at the Covered Bridge Restaurant contracted hepatitis A within about two weeks of each other. Their diagnoses prompted public warnings from the state and more than 1,000 vaccinations administered to those who had recently been to the restaurant or the American Legion in Contoocook.
Although the kitchen passed every inspection before and after the hepatitis A cases in its workers, manager Jeremy Frost said business has plunged and shows no sign of recovery.
“It’s dropped down dramatically,” Frost said. “Overall if you average together, it’s 50 percent that we’re down.”
Chris Adamski, bureau chief of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Infectious Diseases, said no further cases of hepatitis A have been reported. A food inspector and an epidemiologist have inspected the restaurant each time a case has been reported, but she said they have not found any evidence the Covered Bridge Restaurant was the source of the disease or could further infect customers and employees.
“There were no issues of concern,” Adamski said. “We do not believe there is any additional risk to patrons.”
Hepatitis A is a virus that attacks the liver and is not life-threatening. It is spread when food, water or utensils are contaminated with fecal matter, or through sexual contact. Its symptoms are most similar to the flu and usually disappear after two weeks, though some cases can last for several months.
Adamski said the two women who were infected have recovered. The restaurant, Frost said, has not.
“My initial reaction was nothing is going to happen, but then all hell broke loose,” Frost said.
Restaurant owner Donna Walter, who founded the Covered Bridge Restaurant more than 11 years ago, voluntarily closed for six days following the first diagnosis of hepatitis A in early August, which allowed for renovations to the kitchen and fresh paint. Health inspectors never told Walter she needed to shut down, but when she opened again, traffic was down by nearly 40 percent.
Two weeks later, the second diagnosis brought health inspectors to the kitchen again. The restaurant remained open throughout their investigation and again earned a clean bill of health, but its dining room was deserted.
The two women, who are no longer working at the Covered Bridge Restaurant, were roommates, and both worked only part time as bartenders and hostesses, Walter said. She has cut several part-time workers and reduced hours across the board for her staff because business is so slow.
“I have too many nights I cannot sleep,” Walter said. “My manager walks around just to think, what can we do?
“We have to say something so surrounding people know we are still a safe place.”
Her voice became eager and proud when she described Frost’s specialty items on the menu, pointing out the dumplings that draw one California couple to the restaurant every year on their annual vacation, talking quickly about garlic chicken and steak salad and French fries. The large portions, piled onto their plates, generally range between $5 and $12 at what Walter called “country pricing.” She talked at length about positive comment cards and a recent visit from the family of former governor John Lynch.
Underneath her words, however, was deep concern.
“We may not get through this,” she said, quietly.
“People can use their own judgment to say, ‘Oh, that’s the situation,’ ” Walter said. “Our health inspections are good. This is not the place to cause the problem.”
The state health department will continue to monitor the Covered Bridge in the coming months and has placed its staff “under the microscope,” Frost said.
“We’re 100 percent glove-use on any ready-to-eat foods,” Frost said. “Every procedure is followed to the letter. We’re really under scrutiny from the health department, so it’s basically the safest place to eat.”
Despite that reassurance, Delaney Byfield, who works at a nearby village shop, said she felt “thankful” she had never been to the Covered Bridge Restaurant when she heard about the hepatitis A cases.
“I won’t go there,” she said.
She also pointed out other choices within walking distance, such as the cafe, pizza place and diner within a block of Walter’s restaurant.
Yet Julie Ford, another village shopkeeper and a loyal customer of the Covered Bridge Restaurant, hasn’t abandoned its dining room for other local spots.
“I enjoy the restaurant,” she said. “I know everyone there. I have no fear that it’s passing around. I feel it’s no danger to me.”
She hasn’t had to fight for a table at the restaurant, Ford said, but she hoped fear of the disease would subside soon.
“We need to stay calm,” Ford said.
But how long could the Covered Bridge Restaurant stay alive while waiting for that calm to return?
“With business like this?” Frost said.
He looked around at vacant chairs and untouched silverware, and he answered his own question with only a sad chuckle – an empty laugh in an empty room.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)