Suspected norovirus outbreak shutters Bellingham restaurant again

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Health officials have ordered a popular Bellingham restaurant to close after a second possible outbreak of norovirus.

Two food workers at Applebee's on East Sunset Drive reported nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea Tuesday morning, bringing the total number of people sickened to at least 30, said Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor at the Whatcom County Health Department.

The restaurant was initially shut down Friday after employees and customers first reported symptoms often tied to the virus, Kunesh said.

"It's unusual to manifest in a public eating establishment," Kunesh said. "That is unusual."

After the initial outbreak last week, the restaurant was cleaned from top to bottom, said Applebee's spokesman Dan Smith. Door handles were wiped, upholstery was steam-cleaned, and even the food and menus were thrown out.

"Our franchisee is part of the Bellingham neighborhood and is concerned with how this is impacting the community," Smith said. "No one wants to know what the origin of this illness is more than our franchisee. That's of paramount importance for us right now."

After last week's outbreak, the restaurant was allowed to reopen Sunday, Kunesh said. Two of the people who worked that day reported symptoms Tuesday morning, leading to the second closure.

"Since we know we've had an outbreak at this restaurant and we know that they worked at the restaurant after it reopened, we're concerned that the transmission may be continuing," Kunesh added. "Since we cannot be sure that we have completely interrupted transmission of this illness, we again today suspended the operating permit."

Customers who were turned away from a late lunch Tuesday seemed to understand.

"Better safe than sorry," said one man. "Things happen in a lot of restaurants. It just happened to be this one this time."