Edgartown selectmen issued a stern warning Tuesday to the owners of Backyard Taco, a popular Edgartown eatery, for violating state and local Covid-19 social distancing guidelines, mask use regulations and liquor license rules during the summer and fall.
Town health agent Matt Poole brought the violations before the selectmen for discussion at their weekly meeting Tuesday, detailing a series of complaints and subsequent citations from both health authorities and the Edgartown police.
Backyard Taco is a small, seasonal restaurant located at 32 Winter street a block off Main street. The restaurant serves liquor as well as food.
Mr. Poole said on July 12, he received an email from a customer who felt the restaurant was not adhering to social distancing requirements, noting poor customer flow and a low level of mask compliance.
“It was a little disorderly, a little disorganized,” Mr. Poole said. “And that it was to an extent a place where people were congregating, contradicting the intent and goals of the state.”
State emergency guidelines mandate that all parties at restaurants maintain a six-foot distance from one another, as well as a variety of other rules and regulations regarding mask use, cleaning and hygienic practices at public establishments. Regulations also now require restaurants to serve food with any alcohol purchase. Town boards of health have enforcement power over the guidelines.
Mr. Poole told selectmen that in July he forwarded the email to owner Zared Shai detailing the alleged violations, noting that the email constituted a written warning.
Later in the summer, Mr. Poole said he received another communication from a customer that similar practices were continuing at the restaurant. In response, he requested that the Edgartown police monitor the establishment. After discussions with police, Mr. Shai agreed to put up signs and rope off the restaurant’s small deck to prevent customers from eating on site.
But according to a police report filed on Sept. 18 and provided to the Gazette, Sgt. Jamie Craig observed numerous violations of state and local Covid-19 regulations when monitoring the restaurant, including the use of outdoor tables and chairs, patrons sitting closely to one another and sparse mask use.
Two subsequent police reports, one from Sept. 24 and one from Sept. 27 detailed similar allegations, as well as what appeared to be patrons drinking liquor without food in violation of liquor license rules.
“While patrolling Winter street, I observed seven patrons standing on the front porch of Backyard Taco,” a police report on Sept. 27 from officer William Oteri said. “I also noticed none of them were practicing social distancing, or wearing masks and that all but one, had a drink in their hand. I did not observe any food in the area.”
After discussing the violations, selectmen stopped short of issuing any penalties but said any further citations would result in a formal hearing and the possible suspension of their liquor license.
“Let’s not see each other again for a long time,” Edgartown selectman Michael Donaroma told Mr. Shai.
Mr. Shai said he took full responsibility for the violations, and said it had been difficult to maintain strict customer protocols as his staffing numbers dwindled in the fall.
“For the majority of the summer, we got through it pretty well,” Mr. Shai said. “And it wasn’t until September when we had an issue again, because we had less staff. Initially I was able to be out front and handle the crowds through the majority of the summer. But when we lost employees I was forced inside and it was a lot harder to control.”
He noted the small size of the Edgartown restaurant and added that his Oak Bluffs restaurant, Dos Mas, which is open year-round was much larger and had not received any citations for Covid-19 rule violations.
“It’s one of the smallest restaurants with the liquor license around,” Mr. Shai said, referring to Backyard Taco. “As far as the social distancing, it was very difficult. I apologize and take responsibility for any of the infractions that we weren’t able to withhold.”
Selectmen decided not to cite Mr. Shai, but noted that it would happen in the future if the violations continued.
“Hopefully everybody learns from this, and going forward we don’t get any more of these incident reports,” selectman Arthur Smadbeck said. “If we get any more reports, we will hold a hearing to suspend the license.”
Mr. Shai said he likely would be closing the restaurant for the season in about a week because of a variety of factors, including difficulty in complying with regulations.
Mr. Poole said the board of health also has the power to issue monetary fines for restaurants that require frequent service by health agents, indicating that police reports can lead to financial consequences for restaurants as well.
“It’s been a long summer here,” the health agent concluded.
In other business Tuesday, shellfish constable Paul Bagnall informed selectmen that oyster farmer Liam Cosgrove was interested in applying for a year-round shellfish license to farm oysters in Middle Flats off Eel Pond.
The area was approved for aquaculture approximately five years ago, and is currently used as a second option for Katama Bay oyster farmers who want to hedge against the possibility of a harmful bacteria outbreak. There are 10 lots, according to Mr. Bagnall, about six of which are in use.
Mr. Bagnall noted that when lots in the area were originally advertised, it was widely assumed that they would be used as a pasture ground for Katama Bay farmers, and that letting someone use the lot year-round could constitute a change of use that requires further advertisement.
But at the meeting Tuesday, Mr. Bagnall and selectmen decided the area had been adequately advertised and that they would move ahead with Mr. Cosgrove’s request when he applied for the aquaculture license.
“I think that we have advertised it well,” Mr. Bagnall said. “The shellfish committee is in favor of [Mr. Cosgrove] trying.”
Selectmen concluded the meeting by voting to go into executive session to discuss litigation regarding the Yellow House property at 66 Main street in Edgartown.