It appears that two different El Toro restaurants in a few miles apart in Washington state are experiencing norovirus outbreaks.
At the beginning of this week, 41 cases had been reported to the county health department from people who had eaten at the El Toro restaurant in Tacoma. Yesterday, that number had jumped to almost 400 people (n = 391), and about a dozen cases had also been reported from the El Toro at University Place. Samples from the location in Tacoma tested by the state came back positive for norovirus, but the results are still pending for the other location. Both restaurants voluntarily closed for 24 hours to be sanitized with bleach, and have reopened. The management also went above and beyond, sanitizing the three other El Toro restaurants as a precaution, even though no illnesses had occurred at these locations.
The first reports of illnesses at the Tacoma location came in around the New Year, with the bulk of the cases coming to light earlier this week. According to one news report, the county health department identified two employees who had worked at the Tacoma location while sick, and that the patrons who became ill all ate the chips and salsa. The restaurants also make their chips and salsa from scratch, which could be important.
This is totally conjecture on our part, but if the restaurant chain ordered a batch of ingredients and delivered them to the two locations, it is feasible that the ingredients were contaminated before they were prepared by the employees. For example, salsa has been implicated in multiple foodborne outbreaks over the years, (there’s even a scientific paper on it). The employees may have handled the ingredients or consumed some of the same salsa and chips and gotten sick, just like the others who ate these items.
However, employees working while sick is also a known issue in the foodservice industry, and the most common cause of foodborne norovirus outbreaks in the U.S. While the reasons this happens are many, and a focus of much research, some of the causes that have been identified include a lack of paid sick leave for these workers, the employees not wanting to leave their colleagues understaffed, a fear of lost pay, and the belief that they are not very sick or contagious.
It will be interesting if the source of the virus is investigated further, and we will update this post if more information comes available.