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Makris tops list of COVID-19 complaints against Concord restaurants

  • Jimmy Makris, owner of Makris Lobster & Steak House in Concord on May 7, 2020, in the back patio that he is getting ready for the May 18th partial reopening of restaurants. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Jimmy Makris, owner of Makris Lobster & Steak House in Concord, talks about the police visit after a person complained about too many cars in the parking lot. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 8/15/2020 3:13:56 PM

Waiters and waitresses without face masks serving food.

Dining tables and menus not sanitized between each customer use.

Lobbies crowded with people waiting for takeout orders.

The consumer complaints alleging violations of New Hampshire’s coronavirus guidelines total in the hundreds, and they continue to roll in daily. Most frequently people report eateries because employees are not wearing faces masks – or wearing them below the nose or on the chin – and because there is a perceived lack of social distancing, a Monitor right-to-know request found.

Since May, the vast majority of complaints have fallen into the hands of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, which established a phone number and email to handle concerns about Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive orders on the coronavirus and reopening guidelines for businesses. Several of the office’s victim-witness advocates receive consumers’ complaints, follow up with the reporting parties and reach out to business owners each time an allegation is brought forward. The goal is always to gain voluntary compliance.

Of the complaints received so far, most were resolved after business owners took steps to rectify the issues brought to their attention, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said in a recent interview. However, the attorney general’s office has flagged a handful of businesses in the state, including Makris Lobster and Steak House in Concord, where prosecutors say violations of government orders persist despite repeated follow up. The Attorney General’s Office has fielded multiple complaints about Makris since late May, whereas a few other Concord restaurants received one complaint each, public records show.

“When it comes to enforcing the governor’s executive orders, we find that people generally fall into three categories: We have people who don’t understand the guidelines, we have people who don’t like them and we have people who refuse to follow them,” Edwards said.

Education about the guidelines is always the first step – and sometimes, it’s the second, third and fourth steps, too, she said.

“Most businesses want to do what is right and they come into compliance quickly,” Edwards said. “If we have a concern that our efforts to educate are not working and we’re not getting through to the people we’ve been talking to, we’ll have the police do a follow-up within 48 hours.”

Local police officers will stop by a business to speak with the owner and observe firsthand any violations of COVID-19 guidelines. Sometimes, officers may contact the New Hampshire Liquor Commission for additional guidance, or a municipality’s health inspector may become involved if a violation is observed during a routine inspection.

Law enforcement has discretion in deciding how to enforce an emergency order, but their primary objective is to educate. In the event of repeated violations, police are advised to issue a business a written warning, which informs them that future non-compliance may lead to criminal charges, according to guidance issued by the attorney general’s office in March.

“If the business does not comply after a written notice from police, the attorney general’s office will issue a letter to the business, letting them know that further legal action may be necessary,” Edwards said. “We do expect to issue a few of these for the first time.”

Makris Lobster and Steak House

Through a right-to-know request, the Monitor learned that consumers filed a total of 14 complaints against seven Concord restaurants and bars between March 17 and July 22. Of the total complaints, eight addressed alleged violations at Makris Lobster and Steak House on Sheep Davis Road, and the remaining six involved six different eateries in the city.

Complaints involving Makris were filed on May 28, June 17, June 22, June 24, July 6 (twice), July 15 and July 21, and customers reported on each date that employees were not wearing face coverings or had them down on their chins. One man who filed a complaint in June was told by an employee that “they were not required to wear masks.” A woman reported that none of the staff were wearing masks when she went to eat there in June and when she raised the issue of mask-wearing an employee responded, “give it a rest lady.”

A month later, a woman reported her server was wearing a mask around her neck. She said the staff had a “very blaise” attitude. Once asked, the woman said the waitress wore her mask every time she visited the table after that.   

Under the governor’s “Safer at Home” reopening guidance for the food service industry, “Direct customer contact employees shall wear cloth face coverings over their nose and mouth when at work and around others in settings where social distancing may be difficult (e.g. serving clients, greeting, etc.).”

Restaurant owner Jimmy Makris said by phone that employees do not wear face masks 24/7, but are happy to oblige the customer if he or she requests that the server mask up.

“My staff is not going to comply with the guidelines 24/7 when it’s 90 degrees out,” Makris said. “You try to wear a mask outside on our deck in 90-degree weather.”

Makris said he believes mask-wearing has become highly politicized, and that the coronavirus is not going to disappear simply because people wear masks.

State guidelines reference recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has called on Americans to wear cloth face coverings to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially indoors and when social distancing is not possible. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in mid-July that if everyone wore a face mask the virus would be under control in one to two months.

New Hampshire business owners can deny access to patrons who refuse to wear cloth face coverings, although they’re often uncomfortable doing so, the attorney general’s office said. State guidelines instruct customers to wear face masks when entering and exiting a restaurant, or anytime when they are not seated at a dining table.

In addition to concerns about mask-wearing, a Makris customer reported in late May that hand sanitizer was not available and that employees were not cleaning tables. Sanitation issues were re-raised by two different customers in July: one had the exact same concerns as the customer in May, and another said the menus were not cleaned. A patron also reported that dining tables were not six feet apart.

Under state guidelines, all tabletops must be sanitized, including condiments; menus should be disposable or sanitized between each use; hand sanitizer stations should be available in the restaurants’ lobby, cashier stations, bathroom and other frequently used areas; and tables cannot be less than six feet apart or seat more than six people at one time.

Makris told the Monitor that employees are doing all they can to ensure customers are safe and the restaurant clean.

“We have sanitizing stations. We disinfect every time someone leaves a table and the girls are wiping down the menus,” he said. “We are using disposable, one-time-use plasticware. Except as of today we’re using dishes because everyone is.”

Makris said the complaints reported to the attorney general’s office are alleged, not proven. He said he has filed his own right-to-know request with authorities to get the names of the people filing the complaints because he believes “disgruntled former employees or someone with an ax to grind” is trying to create problems for his business. Records provided to the Monitor contained names of those who complained but not addresses or contact information.

Enforcement

The complaints provided to the Monitor show that multiple people raised concerns with the attorney general’s office about the restaurant’s reopening policies. After the first formal complaint was filed against Makris in late May, the Concord Police Department and/or a state attorney were notified each time a new complaint came in.

On June 17, a Concord police officer responded to Makris and witnessed a handful of employees who were not wearing masks, records show. At that time, the attorney general’s office advised the Concord Police Department to prepare a written warning to Makris. However, as of last week, the department had not yet issued such a letter, despite additional complaints against the restaurant.

When asked about the compliance checks at Makris, Concord Police Chief Brad Osgood told the Monitor that he could not comment on pending investigations.

“I do have at least one open investigation, and I’m hopefully going to be finding a resolution to that very soon – I’m thinking in a matter of days,” Osgood said.

While Osgood declined to discuss specifics, Edwards confirmed that police officers conducted compliance checks at Makris and observed employees without masks. Additionally, she said, Concord’s public health inspector visited the restaurant and witnessed the same violation.

“We requested that Concord police write a letter to the restaurant, but for some reason, they are hesitant to do that,” Edwards said. “We may have to proceed with something like a letter from the attorney general if police are not willing to issue a written warning.”

Osgood said he is aware that police can issue what he referred to as a “cease and desist letter” to the owner or manager of a business, but that he doesn’t see the need when there is a pending police investigation.

“I’m having face-to-face communication with them. I’m having police officers who are face-to-face witnesses to people who are in compliance or not,” he said.

Hearing directly from a business owner about what challenges he or she is facing and why compliance is an issue is important, Osgood said. Further, he noted, people may not be wearing face coverings because the business doesn’t have the means to supply them, and the department has provided temporary assistance by offering some from its own stock in those situations.  

“We recognize that it may take someone just one visit from an officer and other times it may take three, four or five visits before they come into compliance,” Osgood said. “After a period of time, they may never come into compliance, and then we have to make a decision about what to do.”

Earlier in the month, an anonymous caller reported to 911 that it looked like too many people were in the Makris parking lot when the restaurant was offering take-out orders. Concord police and officials with the liquor commission responded and found no violations. That episode wasn’t recorded in the Attorney General’s records. Makris was upset then about people complaining about his business, which he was trying to keep afloat.

Makris said by phone last week that he is getting mixed messages from the Concord Police Department and the attorney general’s office about who is in charge of the compliance checks, and whether police are stopping by on their own accord or being sent by prosecutors.

He said his business is struggling to stay afloat and to maintain staff. All the calls and visits create additional stress.

“I had 46 employees at one time, but with the extra stimulus money only 16 have come back,” Makris said. “They’re making more money not working. People just don’t want to work anymore.”

The mortgage payment and utility costs have remained the same, but he said he is prohibited under the guidelines from operating his business at full capacity.

“They cut me to 50%, but my costs are still 100%,” Makris said. “There are a lot of people hurting right now.”

Other Concord restaurants

In recent months, complaints were filed about possible violations of COVID-19 guidelines at a handful of other restaurants and bars in the Capital City.

Both Concord police and the state Liquor Commission were notified June 4 of a possible breach of the guidelines at Cheers Grille and Bar, where a customer reported that there was no social distancing and that indoor dining was permitted. Indoor dining was not allowed in New Hampshire restaurants before June 15. Records don’t detail how the complaint was resolved, but it was the only one filed against Cheers as of late July.

A complaint was also filed against The Draft Sports Bar and Grill on July 6 after customers observed employees not wearing masks, not cleaning tables between customers and a crowd inside the restaurant. The advocate who took the complaint reported receiving two similar anonymous complaints the same day. Owner Andy Sanborn, a former Republican state senator, spoke with staff at the attorney general’s office and assured them that the restaurant was in compliance and operating at 50% capacity.

That same day, a complaint was filed against The Newell Post, which has locations on Fisherville Road and Main Street, alleging that silverware was “half wrapped” and that the restaurant was using regular menus. Disposable menus aren’t required, but menus should be sanitized, according to state guidelines.

Checkmate Pizza on Washington Street received a call from the attorney general’s office after someone reported that too many people were in the shop and mask-wearing was limited. The manager said anyone who has close contact with members of the public, including all delivery drivers, wear face coverings, and that employees in the kitchen also mask up when they can’t practice social distancing. Concord police conducted a compliance check on July 17, and no additional violations have been reported.

A diner filed a complaint about C.C. Tomatoes on Fisherville Road at the end of June saying the waitstaff was wearing masks but the owner didn’t appear to be wearing one. Each of three follow up calls by the attorney general office were not answered and the voicemail was full. 

A complaint was filed about employees not wearing masks at Subway in Concord. However, the attorney general’s office did not document what, if any, action it took or the date of the report.

Any questions or complaints about possible violations of COVID-19 guidelines can be directed to the attorney general’s office at 603-271-1225 or EO40issues@doj.nh.gov.




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