On the evening of Monday, June 14, 2021, Mendocino County Public Health (MCPH) published a press release announcing that a staff member of Ukiah’s Ellie’s Mutt Hutt restaurant had tested positive for COVID-19 and encouraged members of the public who had dined at the restaurant from June 10-11 to “get tested and closely monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.”
Dani Corippo, co-owner of Ellie’s Mutt Hut, told us that despite the press release’ claim that “a good rapport [was] developed with the restaurant,” neither MCPH or Environmental Health contacted them until yesterday, the day after the press release was published.
Corippo said she felt “blindsided” by the press release and described Mendocino County Public Health’s willingness to publish a press release before informing the business’s owner as “unreal.”
In the wake of struggling during the COVID-19 lockdown, Corippo said, “Our business was just starting to pick up after a year and a half.” She said that in the day following Public Health’s press release, “we had less than one-quarter of our regular business.”
Corippo said the specific employee that tested positive for COVID-19 “never came to work once he felt symptoms and has not returned since.”
Corippo said her restaurant has worked hard over the last year to follow pandemic protocols including masking and social distancing. She stated she has alway sought a “good relationship with Public Health.” She added, “it would have been nice to talk with them with the press release and work with them before they made this press release that has affected our business tremendously.”
During the winter surge of COVID-19 cases, Mendocino County Public Health published multiple statements regarding local outbreaks. In the majority of those, the press release included a quote from the owner/manager of the affected business providing them an opportunity to address the community directly about how their business was navigating COVID-19 protocols.
This willingness to include the voices of local businesses can be seen in this press release describing an outbreak at a Fort Bragg daycare, this one describing a Albion youth group outbreak, and this one that includes the voices of a local dentist and the manager of the Ukiah Co-Op.
In the last two weeks, MCPH’s press releases have informed the community about four Ukiah restaurants with COVID-19 activity (The Pub, The Office, Applebee’s, and Ellie’s Mutt Hut) and one Willits restaurant called Diggers. Not one of those press releases included the voice of the affected business.
Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren said publicly identifying restaurants with COVID-19 activity is not meant “to be punitive.”
When asked what had led to this shift in approach when writing press releases about local businesses, Dr. Coren could not point to any specific shift in policy or approach, and said he would “look into it.”
He went on to say that the restaurants that have had active COVID-19 cases have been “cooperative” and “the main reason that we’re doing this is to let the community know how important it is to not go to work or a bar or a restaurant, if they had symptoms.”
Dr. Coren characterized restaurants as environments that create “high-risk” exposure. He explained the danger in-person dining can present: “If a COVID-19 positive server has been working, they could’ve exposed multiple people in the community.”
Corippo told us that yesterday one of her employees was denied a haircut by a local salon because the cosmetologist recognized them as being a staff member of Ellie’s and was not comfortable cutting their hair.
Kimmarie Richardson, the owner of Ukiah restaurant The Office, had a similar experience. On June 5, 2021, a press release announced three COVID-19 positive customers had patronizedThe Office between the dates of May 22-23 encouraging anyone who was in the establishment at that time to be tested and to monitor for symptoms.
Richardson told us she was not informed of any press release regarding The Office until it was published and that when she “started getting messages on my phone.”
Richardson said that in her eye’s, her voice’s exclusion from the Public Health press release amounted to “defamation of character.” She explained,” I have a great reputation to uphold. And that didn’t look good.”
Richardson argued that a business owner has to be consulted and included when publishing these sorts of press releases “so the public doesn’t think we tried to hide it and sweep it under the rug.”
In a letter Richardson published to the Ukiah community, she provided a summation of her concerns associated with how Public Health approached the press release:
“We were never notified of the incident(s) by the County once their contact tracing was completed, nor were we asked for comment on the press release. We were not informed of the tracing results until the same day the press release was published, Friday, June 4th, two weeks after the date(s) of concern.
Ultimately, Dani Corippo, a co-owner of Ellie’s Mutt Hut, wants to move into the future and make her restaurant thrive again. She told us that the restaurant, which has been open for 43 years, was started by her grandmother, Ellie. “We work so hard, being family owned,” Corippo reflected. She said, “Knowing how hard we worked to comply with the health orders, this whole thing is just a stab in the heart.”