Backyard Taco warned for violating COVID protocols

Poor social distancing and limited mask-wearing cited in three separate incidents.

Backyard Taco in Edgartown was called before selectmen to talk about infractions of COVID-19 protocols. - Lucas Thors

Backyard Taco in Edgartown could face suspension of its liquor license if it has any more violations of social distancing and mask-wearing protocols, the board of selectmen warned Tuesday night.

Zared Shai, owner of the restaurant at 32 Winter St., was called before the board Tuesday to discuss three incidents — August 15, Sept. 24, and Sept. 27 — where police reported a lack of social distancing at the restaurant, scant mask wearing, and people drinking alcohol without any food in front of them.

“[The police reports] all detail bad distancing, more alcohol than food observed, and sort of a crowded establishment that was not being run in compliance with the COVID protocols from restaurant guidelines for the summer of 2020,” health agent Matt Poole said. “At this point, I felt that we needed to take more formalized action and have a formal conversation with [the owners].”

Town administrator James Hagerty recommended that if there’s an additional incident, the board set a hearing for license suspension. “I think with this meeting, putting everything on notice, everyone on the same page, it’s the first step,” he said.

For his part, Shai took responsibility for the incidents, and apologized that they had to be there talking about them. He said it’s been difficult because of the size of the restaurant to employ the proper social distancing practices. He blamed the two incidents in September on having fewer employees, and having to work in the kitchen, where he couldn’t keep a close eye on what was happening. He said he’s contemplated shutting the restaurant down or just going with takeout at the location.

“To be honest, it’s been so stressful,” Shai said, noting that it’s easier to meet the guidelines at his Oak Bluffs location because it’s bigger. “In Edgartown, I’ve taken on so much stress that at this point, I’d be happy shutting the door to be honest, because it’s just too much. I’ve done as best I could. There’s times I probably slipped, and there were times when I had to leave and go over to Dos Mas and be in the establishment in Oak Bluffs and that was, in fact, when these problems occurred. While I take responsibility for everything that goes on in that restaurant, there’s really only so much I feel like it’s possible to do.”

He said the restaurant likely would close in about a week, though he hasn’t sent a letter to the town informing them of that. “I don’t have any excuse. All I can do is my best, and just only essentially allow for outdoor seating, which is difficult when the weather doesn’t cooperate,” Shai said. 

The Edgartown board of health was also at the meeting. Poole said the restaurant could face fines as a result of the infractions, ranging from 25 percent increased inspection frequency up to 200 percent of their annual licensing fees for a show-cause hearing. “That is one way to sort of penalize folks who fail to comply when they receive adequate coaching and information. We also can ticket through the state governor’s declaration and charge of enforcement to the local communities,” Poole said.

Selectmen asked that any fines by the health board be talked about at a separate meeting of that board.

“This has been a long summer here,” Poole said of the board’s dealings with Backyard Taco.

Meegan Lancaster, a member of the board of health, said it’s concerning that there were three violations in such close proximity. “These guidelines have been out for the better part of the summer,” she said. “Safety standards are in place for all places in Massachusetts, and there’s more restrictive measures in place for food establishments. Having this many violations in a short period is concerning … It just seems to be a real disregard for state-ordered safety protocols in the workplace.”

The board of selectmen left Shai with a warning. “If we get any more of these reports, we’re going to have a hearing on possible suspension of the license,” selectmen chairman Arthur Smadbeck told Shai. “We do wish you all the best. We know how tough this has been for all the restaurateurs in the town, and really appreciate it if you’d go the extra mile for us and not have any more of these violations.”

Selectman Michael Donaroma concurred: “I’d just like to say let’s not see each other again for a long time.”

In other business, selectmen endorsed the idea of allowing an aquaculture license for Middle Flats Oyster Farms. The board also learned that bids for the second phase of the Yellow House — the park area — are due Nov. 4, according to Hagerty.

Hagerty also told the board that the town’s new website should be up and running by mid-November. “From what I’ve seen, it should be a good website overall,” he said.