Eight more businesses have been cited by Maine health authorities since mid-September for violating the state’s COVID-19 prevention measures as the numbers of cases and deaths from the infectious disease continue to grow in Maine.

Businesses that recently were issued citations include Pat’s Pizza in Portland for failure to require customers to wear masks when not seated. Others are spread out across the state and include restaurants, a pool hall in Bangor and a campground in Millinocket.

Since the state reopened nonessential businesses and issued the new pandemic safety guidelines, Maine’s Health Inspection Program has issued “imminent health hazard” citations to 24 businesses across the state for violating them. The pace of citations issued has increased recently, with all but one business, Petrillo’s restaurant in Freeport, cited since Aug. 20, according to state records.

The state Health Inspection Program has always taken complaints and license violations seriously, and will encourage compliance and take enforcement action when appropriate to protect public health and safety, Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said.

“Licensing action results from failure to comply with health and safety requirements,” Farwell said. “It does not fluctuate depending on the current prevalence of COVID-19.”

An imminent health hazard citation gives an establishment 30 days to come into compliance or risk losing its operating license and incurring expensive fines. All businesses disciplined by the state received prior warnings of noncompliance triggered by public complaints, DHHS said.

Two of the cited businesses, 45th Parallel Woodfired Grill in Oquossoc and Eureka Hall in Stockholm, had their operating licenses suspended last month for noncompliance. Both licenses were reinstated a day after suspension. Only one establishment, Rick’s Cafe in Naples, still has a suspended operating license, which the business is appealing, Farwell said.

Another business that has received multiple citations, Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel, has agreed to comply with state rules, but Farwell said DHHS recently received another complaint about the business that it is investigating.

Most of the businesses that have received health hazard citations are restaurants. In almost every case, the business was cited for not enforcing mask-wearing or social distancing requirements for patrons and/or employees.

Recently disciplined establishments include Abol Bridge Campground in Millinocket, Shelby’s Deli in Oakland, Rack City pool hall in Bangor, Limerick Village Variety in Limerick, Pond Town Pub in Winthrop, Eureka Hall in Stockholm, Tailgate Bar and Grill in Gray and Charleez Hill music venue in Lebanon.

Rack City owner Corey Hanson said he thought he was following the rules when he installed plexiglass in front of the bar but did not require bartenders to wear masks. The pool hall and bar was cited on Sept. 18 for precisely that reason.

“We were under the impression they only had to wear them when they came in and when they were walking around,” Hanson said. “I guess things have changed – someone could have let me know things have changed. I wasn’t trying to defy the law.”

Hanson admits that early on he did not take the rules seriously, but that he has since hired two employees to monitor patrons and make sure they follow mask and social distancing mandates. Multiple people have been kicked out of his establishment for refusing to follow the rules, he said.

It rankles Hanson and other business owners that health inspectors can inspect and discipline businesses  based on anonymous complaints. He said it isn’t fair that he doesn’t get to know who reported him for noncompliance, and why.

“I’ve had six people call in and report me – how do I know it isn’t the same person who doesn’t like me?” he said. “I don’t think it is right someone can call and complain and I don’t get to defend myself.”

Other recently cited businesses were unavailable or did not respond to interview requests Thursday. An employee who answered the phone at Shelby’s Deli on Thursday said the sandwich shop was cited because it did not have a sign instructing patrons to wear a mask inside the store, but that employees wore masks and customers were told to keep a safe distance inside. Comments in Health Inspection Program records said deli employees were not masked and customers were not asked to socially distance.

Health citations for businesses violating Maine’s COVID-19 prevention rules rose following a Millinocket-area wedding and reception in early August that has become a virus “superspreader” event, linked to at least 176 cases of the disease and seven deaths.

The wedding has been linked to multiple outbreaks including dozens of cases around Sanford in York County, which is a now one of the the state’s virus hot spots.

The increase in citations is not connected to the prevalence of the disease, but is instead part of the normal process the Health Inspection Program goes through to achieve compliance, said Farwell, the DHHS spokesperson. An increase in enforcement relative to prior weeks simply reflects that expected progression, she said.

She added that a previous story about the recent spate of citations published by the Maine Sunday Telegram incorrectly linked increased enforcement to the superspreader event.

The Health Inspection Program “first works to educate establishments about compliance,” Farwell said.

“Citations are the next step when compliance is not achieved,” she said. “The vast majority of Maine businesses overseen by HIP have taken appropriate steps to protect the health and safety of employees and consumers.”

Establishments are first issued notifications of a noncompliance report and educational material about how to operate within the rules from the Health Inspection Program. If the business receives more complaints, authorities may conduct an inspection and issue a citation if violations are found.

The citation lasts 30 days if the establishment commits to compliance. If it does not agree to comply, or noncompliance is observed the during the 30-day period, a license suspension is issued.

Businesses that operate while under suspension can be fined hundreds of dollars a day and may risk having their annual license renewal denied, Farwell said.

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