* This story has been updated as of Feb. 2, 2018.
Sam’s Inn restaurant in Warwick faced some heat from customers who got sick with norovirus-type symptoms after dining at the restaurant on Jan. 20, which prompted an investigation from the Rhode Island Department of Health on Jan. 24.
The investigation revealed 11 citations, one of which involved an employee handling bread with their bare hands. However, the investigation also revealed that the illnesses were not caused as a result of a food-borne illness or improper cooking of food, and the restaurant was not cited by the health department or closed for any period of time.
Joseph Wendelken, spokesperson for the Department of Health, said that the sicknesses described were “classic” symptoms of norovirus, a common but debilitating virus transmitted this time of year that has been especially active lately.
Sam's Inn published a post on its Facebook page which indicated that the contamination happened due to someone carrying the virus interacting with the restaurant's salad bar.
"It has been determined that on the weekend of January 20th our salad bar area was exposed to norovirus through human contact," the post reads. "Neither we, nor the health department, were able to determine exactly how this happened, especially with the national epidemic of illness and viruses plaguing our state and country right now."
Regardless, due to the violations, the department instructed employees and management of Sam’s Inn on proper protocols for sanitizing equipment, handling and storing food and that there will likely be a follow-up inspection in the coming weeks to ensure that staff are complying with the regulations.
“It's really about the measures the food establishment takes to address the situation. With norovirus, there’s specific steps establishments are supposed to take to disinfect areas of rest that can result to transition,” Wendelkin said. “The thing about norovirus is it spreads very easily and one of the ways it spreads is by people coming into contact with it and putting their hands near their mouths, so food establishments are sites where we do see large scale transmission of norovirus.”
Wendelkin said that about a dozen people contacted the health department following becoming sick at Sam’s Inn, which prompted the investigation.
Sam Khouri, owner of Sam’s Inn, was deeply apologetic to all patrons who got sick, and said that he has hired a consultant to come in tomorrow, Feb. 2, to educate staff on proper protocols to follow to prevent illnesses from spreading.
“I can assure you [sanitation rules are] strictly enforced,” he said. “These people know now they won't have a job if they break any of these rules. It's the last thing we want, is to have a tarnished reputation. We live in this community. We eat here. I can honestly tell you I don’t think anybody is working harder to fix this problem than we are here.”
Khouri said they were working cooperatively with the health department and that they adhered to all protocols enforced during the inspection, and will continue to do so moving forward. He said they would issue a full apology on Facebook.
“We love this town, the people, the community,” he said. “It's a shame that this happened, but nothing was done intentionally to harm anybody.”