Just as the snow must melt each spring, revealing new green shoots and the occasional long-frozen dog turd, so too must I return to my computer to type these words: People have been sickened at Chipotle. Again.
That’s right: For the sixth time since last summer, the once-beloved fast-casual chain is making headlines in a way it would rather not. In this case, four Chipotle employees called in sick to their branch in Billerica, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, a company spokesman told the Boston Globe. One was diagnosed with norovirus, and two others are suspected to have the virus. We’re not sure about the fourth, and it still isn’t clear whether the employees in question contracted the virus at Chipotle or elsewhere.
Norovirus causes a lot of the symptoms you’d expect from a stomach bug: abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. But unlike E. coli, which has also been a problem for Chipotle, norovirus is highly contagious, passing not only through food but through contaminated surfaces. The affected branch is near Boston, which is where the chain experienced a massive norovirus outbreak among more than 100 Boston College students in December.
No customers have yet reported falling ill. To be safe, the Billerica branch closed up shop Tuesday, and will be “fully sanitized” during the closure, said the spokesman. The sick employees won’t be allowed back to work until they’ve been symptomless for at least five days.
As those employees suffer, so too does their parent company: Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. shares fell 2.6 percent by early Wednesday, according to MarketWatch. Unsurprisingly—given that they’ve now had six foodborne illness outbreaks and sickened more than 500 people since last summer—Chipotle shares have fallen a whopping 22 percent overall in the past 12 months.
Back in January, after speaking with public health and food safety experts, I wrote that “post-scandal, Chipotle is likely now on its best behavior to avoid another outbreak.” Apparently, I was wrong. Chipotle, of course, is aware of its image problem. On Feb. 8, the chain closed down stores nationwide for a meeting on food safety that was meant to boost consumer confidence (and offered free burritos to boot). Well! Pretty confident now, aren’t we?
You’d think by now people would have had enough, and just choose a different place for lunch. But some customers are very loyal it seems.
“Disappointed they’re closed again,” one customer told CBS News, upon seeing the “closed” sign hanging on the door late Tuesday. “I’m sure they’re just looking out for us,” said another.