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Restaurants find themselves unwitting agents of the measles outbreak

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Restaurants are being dragged into the ongoing measles epidemic as frequent points of contamination, inadvertent victims themselves of what some politicians are handling as a major health emergency.

The industry’s accidental role has yet to trigger any detectable alarm from the public or the business itself about potential exposure. The National Restaurant Association has fielded few inquiries or indications of concern from members about the disease, “which surprises me,” says William Weichelt, the Association’s director of food safety and industry relations. 

Nor have indications of concern been channeled up from the national group’s state affiliates, he says.

Yet as Weichelt notes, reports of new infections routinely cite a restaurant as the place where the disease was spread. Patrons or employees have been identified as the source of contamination in cases extending from New Jersey, where health officials traced an outbreak to Rosalita’s Roadside Cantina in Marlboro, to California, where bulletins alerted patrons of Sauced BBQ & Spirits in Livermore that they may have been exposed.

Authorities have traced many of Texas’ 15 cases of measles to a Chuy’s in College Station, the home of Texas A&M.

The first case in Mississippi, detected this week, was traced to a visitor who stopped at a Subway and a Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers.

Weichelt speculates that operators and health officials have remained calm about the restaurant-measles connection because the industry hasn’t viewed the illness as being out of the ordinary. He surmises that restaurateurs are asking employees not to work if they show any signs of being ill, as local health codes require, without determining if the ailment is measles or something else. 

They’re similarly handling customers exhibiting early symptoms just as they would any other patron who appears to be sick, Weichelt says.

The industry may be sensitized to follow that practice after contending for years with norovirus, which is also highly contagious and can spread through the air. 

Early signs of measles include a fever, achiness, a sore throat and a runny nose, which are common for any number of infectious ailments. The disease’s tell-tale symptom, a rash-like eruption of red dots on a victim’s skin, often doesn’t appear until later.  

Operators following standard safety procedures often send home an employee or direct them not to show for work before the illness reaches that obvious state, Weichelt surmises. 

Alarm about the industry’s role in advertently spreading the disease has also likely been tamped down by indications that restaurants are cooperating with health officials when a case is detected, according to Weichelt.

Federal health authorities and elected officials at all levels say there’s nothing routine about the current measles outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 626 cases of the viral infection had been reported as of April 19. That compares with 372 cases for all of 2018, and 120 the year before.

The disease virtually disappeared earlier this century because of widespread vaccination. But authorities have determined that the inoculations given decades ago to persons now in their late 50s or early 60s may not protect against the current variety of measles. 

The CDC is not sure why measles cases have soared this year. It speculates that the spike could be the result of increased travel by Americans to areas where measles has been common, and to a refusal within certain pockets of the population to be inoculated against the virus.

Some areas have resorted to extreme measures of questionable legality in hopes of containing the outbreak. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered residents of several areas in Brooklyn to get vaccinated against the virus. Those areas have high populations of Hasidic Jews and low incidences of vaccinations.

Rockland County, a suburban area just north of New York City, has taken the extraordinary action of prohibiting any unvaccinated minors from visiting public places such as restaurants. The directive from County Executive Ed Day also applies to restaurant employees.

Day has since followed up his directive with an order that anyone diagnosed with or exposed to the measles virus must isolate themselves from the public for at least 21 days. Anyone who ignores the requirement is subject to a $2,000 fine.

Mandating vaccination is a legally ambiguous move, for employers as well as elected officials, Weichelt notes. "A lot of states are looking at the same question right now," he says. 

He urges restaurateurs to do there part by remaining vigilant and acting quickly. "If an employee or a guest comes in and they suspect that something’s wrong, they need to reach out to their local health departments right away and let them know, Weichelt says. 

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