State officials Friday reinstated the health license of the Millinocket inn that hosted a wedding reception that sparked a major COVID-19 outbreak.

After suspending the license of the Big Moose Inn on Wednesday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services reinstated it Friday. And after being silent for weeks, the inn’s owners released a lengthy statement Friday explaining their view of the outbreak.

“Our hearts go out to the family, those affected by the virus who were at the wedding, and those who have been impacted since then. There is no doubt that this virus is dangerous with wide-ranging impacts. We too are deeply saddened and frustrated by the many devastating impacts of COVID-19. This is a challenging time for all of us,” said a statement released on behalf of the inn by its spokesman, Dan Cashman. The statement said the Big Moose Inn was previously silent “out of respect for the wedding party and family, and to let the state investigation take place.”

So far, a total of 123 people have been sickened and one person has died in the COVID-19 outbreak that started at the Big Moose Inn and expanded to the York County Jail and a Madison nursing home. The jail is now reporting 54 cases, and there are nine at the nursing home.

The state restored the health license of the Big Moose Inn after deficiencies were corrected, ending a one-day shutdown. Linda Coan O’Kresik/The Bangor Daily News via AP

The Big Moose Inn was initially issued an “imminent health hazard” warning – which had no penalty – for hosting a gathering of more than 50 people indoors at the wedding reception. The  Aug. 7 reception totaled 65 people, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the inn’s statement, the gathering-size violation occurred because they misunderstood the rule. The operators believed they could have 50 people each in separate dining rooms rather than the 50-person limit applying to the entire facility.

“We did make an error in the interpretation of that rule. Our interpretation was that we could take a wedding party of more than 50 persons, and split them between two rooms as long as it didn’t exceed our total capacity or a specific room’s capacity,” according to the statement.  “The state – perhaps, rightfully so – assumes that individuals from a larger group would ignore the room restrictions, and take the opportunity to co-mingle. Our interpretation of the rule put the Big Moose Inn in violation of the gathering of people.”

The Maine CDC and a visitor from New Hampshire who was staying at the Big Moose Inn at the same time said most people at the reception were not wearing masks.

An Aug. 18 inspection report released by the Maine CDC said staff were wearing masks and temperatures of guests were taken at the door, but guests were not wearing masks or social distancing and the Big Moose Inn failed to enforce either. Signs did tell patrons to wear masks.

Also, there were other people at the inn besides the wedding guests, so in all, there were slightly more than 100 people in the same building. And in some parts of the dining areas, tables were spaced less than 6 feet apart.

According to the Big Moose Inn statement, “We have signage to let visitors know that masks are required; staff wears masks at all times when we are open to the public or in proximity to other staff; we have increased sanitizing and safety measures before, during, and after diners and guests visit our establishment; we have added space for increased physical distancing; and we take the temperature of guests at events prior to entering the building. The wedding attendees were all screened prior to entering, which helped to give us assurance that there were no symptoms being shown from anyone at the Big Moose Inn over the course of that weekend.”

The statement went on to say that none of the inn’s servers who worked the wedding reception tested positive, although two employees later tested positive. They were likely infected by an “outside source” according to “contact tracing” done by the Big Moose Inn.

But after a subsequent visit by health officials Wednesday, the inn’s health license was suspended for continued violations of state rules instituted by the Mills administration to try to control the pandemic. Employees were not wearing masks, tables were not spaced at least 6 feet apart, and social distancing was not observed, according to the violation notice. During the suspension, Big Moose Inn was not permitted to operate.

According to the Big Moose Inn statement, “the dining area was closed to customers at the time of the (Aug. 26) inspection. At that point, it had not been open for a couple of weeks. We quickly corrected the violations as though we were open, and our license was reinstated earlier (Friday).”

On Friday, according to the reinstatement notice, a letter from Maine DHHS to Big Moose Inn owner Laurie Cormier said that “you corrected all public health hazards on the Temporary Suspension form dated Aug. 26, 2020, and signed an attestation form stating your establishment is now in compliance.”

The letter also said further failure to comply with state pandemic rules will result in an immediate suspension “which may lead to court action seeking a longer suspension or full revocation of your license, potential fines.”

“Maine CDC is closely monitoring the establishment to ensure continued compliance,” Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said in a statement.

The Big Moose Inn statement says they are “fully cooperating” with the Maine CDC.

“We have taken the pandemic seriously, followed the rules as we have understood them, and gone above and beyond those rules to try and keep our guests, staff, and community safe,” according to the statement. “While we cannot be sure the virus was fully spread at our facility, we know that there are things that we can be doing better. We have given the Maine CDC our word, and we are giving our community and guests that same word that we will do – and are doing – better.”

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