Add another problem to the list for foodservice operators in Massachusetts: A sharp increase in norovirus outbreaks. The state's Department of Health issued an alert yesterday about "a significant number of gastrointestinal illness outbreaks across the state this winter," most likely caused by the food and hand-borne pathogen.
The first six weeks of 2009 brought reports of eight outbreaks in food-handling facilities, compared with none during the same period of 2008 and '07, the department said.
Reported contaminations within schools and daycare facilities are running below prior-year levels, the announcement noted. But outbreaks are up at almost any other common site of contamination, the data show. The increase was particularly high within long-term care and rehabilitation facilities, with an 87% leap in incidences.
The department's statement noted that infected persons who handle food should not be back in the kitchen for three days after they "recover." But studies have shown that persons can still be shedding, or carrying active virus, for a considerable stretch after their symptoms disappear.
Unions and some health officials contend that restaurant workers should be given paid sick leave, to discourage those infected with norovirus from returning to the job prematurely. Many operations grant only a leave of a day or two, typically without pay, for employees who say they've been afflicted with a stomach flu.
This year has been a bitter one for Massachusetts restaurateurs. Gov. Deval Patrick is trying to raise additional tax funds by increasing the levy on restaurant meals by a point, to 6%. His initiative would also allow local jurisdictions to tack on another percentage point for themselves.
The state's restaurant industry contends that consumers will further cut back on dining out if the tax raises their bills by a dollar or two.