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More Than 150 Massachusetts Restaurants Alleged to Have Violated COVID-19 Rules

From bars hosting karaoke nights to restaurants making employees work despite having COVID-19 symptoms

A barrista wearing gloves and a mask makes an espresso shot Shutterstock

More than 150 restaurants, bars, and private clubs in Massachusetts have had complaints filed against them for alleged pandemic safety violations, according to public records from the state’s Department of Labor Standards (DLS) obtained and analyzed by Eater.

The complaints (which can be filed with DLS by both workers and customers) range in type, from the more commonplace — restaurants hosting musical acts and karaoke nights before state guidelines allowed for the return of either activity, limited mask usage, bars opening ahead of schedule, and so on — to the more appalling — restaurants not reporting positive COVID-19 tests among their employees to their local board of health, or to their own employees.

One report from WBUR, which cited data obtained from the state’s attorney general’s office, found that restaurant chain 110 Grill received 20 complaints — the most of any company in the Commonwealth — across a dozen of its Massachusetts outposts. Some of those complaints alleged that workers at 110 Grill were made to work despite reporting COVID-19 symptoms, or weren’t notified when other workers tested positive for the virus.

While 110 Grill shows up in the DLS records (with “All Massachusetts Locations” provided in the address field), no specifics regarding the alleged violations are listed. Ryan Dion, 110 Grill’s chief operating officer, denied the allegations. The case is listed as “closed,” though DLS records indicate 110 Grill was issued a verbal warning in July 2020.

Under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, restaurants are required to report positive COVID-19 cases to their local board of health, and to assist in contact tracing efforts. The local board of health may require the restaurant to test all of its workers for COVID-19 before it can resume operations. The restaurant operator should also follow the current CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting their facility in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.

The failure to report positive COVID-19 cases puts the health and safety of restaurant workers (not to mention diners) at risk. Restaurant workers in Massachusetts are not currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the fact that the state continues to roll back restrictions on dining. These workers have been putting themselves in harm’s way since the state allowed indoor dining to resume in June 2020. Restaurants that do not comply with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines expose their workers to more risk than they’re already subject to.

Restaurants in the state are currently permitted to operate without percentage-based capacity caps (though guidelines around table spacing will necessarily limit the amount of people restaurants can accommodate), and without a curfew. Operating without these restrictions makes life in the restaurant industry more dangerous for workers in many ways: The lack of caps on capacity means more people are likely to gather inside dining rooms; no curfew means those people can stay out later into the night; staying out later into the night means more drinking, which means more people letting their guards (read: masks) down. Cumulatively, it means more risk for restaurant workers, who aren’t even guaranteed hazard pay. The absolute least restaurants can do to ensure the health and safety of their workers is follow the state’s COVID-19 rules.

Eater has spoken with several Massachusetts restaurant workers about Baker’s decision to loosen restrictions, and each has expressed some level of angst, anger, and resignation.

“It just feels like a continuation of the lack of support the restaurant industry has gotten through this whole thing,” said one Boston-based worker who asked to remain anonymous given the precarious nature of restaurant work in the current moment. “I’ve worked at a few restaurants throughout the pandemic. It’s stressful, and I’ve never felt safe, even with strict guidelines in place ... Now restaurants are opening back up and I have no choice but to go back to work ASAP, but don’t expect to be able to get the vaccine until at least April.”

That worker and several others explained that it’s been difficult to access unemployment benefits, so they have no choice but to take restaurant work wherever they can find it.

“We need local government to think not just of our COVID-19 safety, but our mental and financial health as we move forward,” said a Boston-based bartender who also asked to remain anonymous. “Our world has been shaken up in ways that can be hard to explain to folks who don’t do this for a living.”

According to WBUR’s reporting, restaurants in Massachusetts were responsible for 78 COVID-19 clusters. Eater requested the most current data from the state’s Department of Public Health, and will update this post if and when that information is made available.

Hundreds of Businesses in Mass. Violated COVID-19 Rules, Putting Workers at Risk [WBUR]
What Are Massachusetts’s COVID-19 Rules for Restaurants and Bars Right Now? [EBOS]
Dining Rooms Shouldn’t Reopen Until Restaurant Workers Are Eligible for the Vaccine [EBOS]
Capacity Caps Will Be Removed for Massachusetts Restaurants on March 1 [EBOS]
Restaurants Don’t Need Indoor Dining. They Need a Bailout. [BG]