Puritan Backroom

Twenty people became ill with norovirus after attending a function at the Puritan Backroom in November.

CITY health officials say the fact that only one unannounced food service inspection was performed at the Puritan Backroom Restaurant in 2019 is “not unusual,” adding most Manchester food establishments were inspected only once last year because of staffing turnover and “an increased workload in our other areas of practice” — including collecting discarded needles.

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Philip J. Alexakos, chief operations officer at the Manchester Health Department, made the comments in response to questions by the New Hampshire Union Leader after a Right-to-Know request was filed by the state Republican party earlier this month seeking information about a norovirus outbreak at the Puritan Backroom restaurant in November.

The incident, which occurred at the restaurant co-owned by Congressman Chris Pappas, D-N.H., left 18 sick and contributed to the death of another. Republicans contend the location and details of the outbreak weren’t revealed until reported by the media.

“Upon further inquiry from the media, it was found that the Puritan hadn’t had a health inspection since February — more than the six-month requirement between mandatory health inspections,” wrote NHGOP Chairman Stephen Stepanek in a letter to Mayor Joyce Craig and other city officials. “The fact that the Puritan is owned by Congressman Pappas’ family does not go unnoticed. Why has the Puritan Backroom Restaurant been held to different safety standards compared to other restaurants in Manchester?”

“Due to a staffing turnover last year, and an increased workload in our other areas of practice, the fact that the restaurant underwent only one routine, unannounced food service inspection in 2019 is not unusual,” wrote Alexakos in an email. “Indeed, most Manchester food establishments received only one routine, unannounced inspection during this time period.”

“I will state emphatically that our staff and department are among the most competent and professional environmental health professionals in New England with over 70 years of collective experience,” Alexakos wrote. “I know that what we do each day, often unnoticed, for the citizens of Manchester and for those who work and play here is as good as you will find in this state and beyond.”

Safety education

Alexakos said the Environmental Health Branch of the city’s health department operates a food protection program that issues and polices the permits of approximately 717 Manchester food establishments, including restaurants, markets, schools, concessions and long-term care facilities. Staff also license and inspect temporary food service activities, including festivals, fairs and outdoor events.

Last year 752 of these daily permits were issued, Alexakos said.

“These events have been steadily increasing in number,” he said. “Manchester is one of only a few communities in the state that conducts any inspections of these food events and food establishments at the frequency that we do.”

Additionally, Alexakos said, the health department provided free food safety education to more than 339 food service workers last year.

Staff also handle permitting and inspection of 65 swimming pools and hot tub spas; the trapping, collection, sorting and testing of mosquitoes from July to October; and the inspection of schools, childcare and foster care locations, among other duties

Alexakos said over the past few years, city health staff have taken on new roles in the community, with inspectors and supervisors collecting and disposing of used needles found on school property, outside restaurants, in parks and on sidewalks.

From 2015-2019, Alexakos said, health staff collected more than 1,100 needles.

“Each year we spend over 100 hours of staff time on this new and important service,” Alexakos said. “Over the past several years, we have experienced staff shortages while at the same time taking on additional work. This has an impact on frequency of routine, scored inspections.”

Alexakos said historically, when at full staff, four health inspectors conduct inspections at facilities once every six months.

“We work to visit facilities more frequently if we identify repeated critical item violations, or a facility earns a failing score,” Alexakos said.

City inspectors made an unannounced inspection at the Puritan Backroom on Jan. 29, 2019, according to city inspection reports.

“Employee observed using his bare hands to grab cooked french fries for customer service,” wrote the city inspector. That bare-hand contact was one of three critical violations that resulted in a grade of 86 and two follow-up inspections. The other critical violations were ice dumped into a sink reserved for hand-washing and problems with dishwasher sanitation.

Alexakos said three days later, on Feb. 1, an inspector returned and the violations had been addressed. At that time the Backroom received a score of 98 out of 100, with no critical item violations.

Critical item violations are violations “more likely to increase the risk of foodborne illness,” Alexalos said.

“Anytime that we identify these types of violations, we conduct a reinspection within 10 days, but usually within 1-3 days, to assure that the violations have been corrected,” he said. “If these violations have not been corrected, we may issue a summons or fine.”

Primary preparations

The Queen City is ready for its closeup.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen is set to review this week an agreement with ABC News allowing the network to broadcast at City Hall Plaza while covering the first-in-the-nation presidential primary next month.

According to a proposal outlined by ABC News and city parking manager Denise Boutilier, ABC will be leasing all the spaces in the Middle Street Lot, three on Franklin Street, three on Market Street and nine spaces in front of City Hall Plaza — an estimated 83 spaces — for periods of time from Feb. 5-12. The spaces will be leased at the rate of $20 per day, per space, at an estimated total cost of $11,600.

According to Boutilier, Middle Street Lot permit holders will be redirected to the Victory Parking Garage while ABC is in town and be allowed to park on any side street around the Middle Lot during this time without being ticketed.

ABC is working with Manchester police on securing detail officers for traffic and pedestrian control.

City Finance Director Bill Sanders sent a letter last week notifying aldermen that the final urban consumer-price index for calendar year 2019 was 2.3%. The city’s tax cap is based on a three-year average of the urban consumer-price index.

Combine the 2.3% increase in 2019 with a 1.9% increase in 2018 and 2.1% in 2017, and the three-year average comes to 2.1%, which should translate into an estimated $7.3 million in additional spending as city officials begin to craft the Fiscal Year 2021 municipal budget.

City officials have announced a slight change to the voting procedure for residents of Ward 8 for the Feb. 11 presidential primary election. Because of the expected high turnout, voting will be moved from the cafeteria into the gymnasium to accommodate additional voting equipment. Temporary parking spaces for voters that require accessible parking will be added to the main lot near the front door and accessible entrance ramp.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020