Bellevue restaurants reopen after assumed norovirus outbreak

The Bellevue restaurants reported at least 31 cases and have since disinfected each location.

The King County Public Health Department is investigating a norovirus-like illness with 31 confirmed cases, all associated with Purple Café and Wine Bar, Lot No. 3 and Cast Iron Studios in Bellevue.

The department reported it first learned of the outbreak on April 11 when about 26 customers from three separate meal parties showed norovirus-like symptoms after eating at the three restaurants between April 6 and 10. The three restaurants are all owned by the Heavy Restaurant Group and investigators found at least five employees had experienced “symptoms consistent with norovirus” since April 7 and may have worked while contagious.

“As you can imagine we took this recent incident extremely seriously and immediately contacted the health department to offer our full cooperation after we were alerted to a potential problem,” said David Yusen, spokesperson for the Heavy Restaurant Group.

According to the public health department, Heavy Restaurant Group alerted the department after customers reported their illness.

The restaurants closed on April 16 to clean and disinfect after environmental health investigators inspected the locations. The investigators learned of the the ill employees but did not find any other potential risk factors that would contribute to spreading the virus, such as improper hand washing.

“While they were unable to identify the cause of the problem, our partners at the health department confirmed that our food handling procedures are first-rate,” Yusen said.

Each restaurant had and currently maintains an “excellent” food safety inspection rating despite the outbreak.

“Once a restaurant has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, our health investigators visit to ensure compliance,” said Lindsay Bosslet, spokesperson for the King County Public Health Department. “If everything meets standards, the restaurant is allowed to reopen and is no longer considered at increased risk for spreading illness.”

The public health department describes norovirus as a highly contagious virus associated with food that often spreads between people. Symptoms include sudden nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and sometimes a low-grade fever, chills and body aches.

“Norovirus is highly contagious, but rarely causes complications,” Bosslet said. “When norovirus is suspected to be associated with a permitted facility, we ask the restaurant to perform a thorough cleaning and disinfection and to throw out all potentially contaminated foods.”

Consistently reported symptoms suggest the illness is norovirus although the health department did not conduct laboratory tests.

“Because people recover from norovirus fairly quickly and because it rarely causes complications, people who get sick rarely see a healthcare provider,” Bosslet said. “Even then, the clinical presentation of the illness is fairly distinct. As a result, tests — which are also expensive — are typically not performed.”

According to public health officials, the Heavy Restaurant Group has been cooperative and worked with the department to clean, discard potentially contaminated food and educate employees.

Investigators revisited the restaurants on April 17, ensuring the locations were properly disinfected and educating workers. Management learned about the appropriate disinfection agents to use against norovirus while investigators conducted employee training on proper food-handling practices, correct handwashing, preventing bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods and not working until they are symptom-free for at least 48 hours.

The public health department allowed the restaurants to reopen on April 17 and will send investigators for a follow-up inspection by May 1.

Locals can report a possible foodborne illness at the King County Public Health Department’s website or by calling 206-296-4774.