By Debbie Hall
A recent incident at a Martinsville eatery has been described as a raid, but Martinsville authorities said that was not the case.
The El Norteno Mexican Restaurant in Martinsville closed briefly last week at the behest of the Virginia Department of Health to address issues within the restaurant, according to Martinsville Deputy Police Chief Robert Fincher.
He said the incident began at 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 9, when an environmental manager with the local Virginia Department of Health office stopped by the restaurant, located at 730 E. Church St., to check on concerns that had been reported to health officials.
Nancy Bell, public information officer for the West Piedmont Department of Health, said health officials have been working with El Norteno management for approximately six months.
“It’s a popular business and sometimes he gets more customers than he can handle so we’ve been trying to help him out,” Bell said.
On Oct. 9, Bell said that an environmental health specialist had been sent to the restaurant following a customer complaint.
Given that it was the restaurant’s bar, which she said had become overcrowded, and that bars are “known to be unruly at times,” Bell said a police officer was on stand-by in the parking lot.
Following a conversation with the health official, the restaurant manager made the decision to close the establishment and disperse the crowd.
“Our guy went back to the office that night to prepare the paperwork to have them (El Norteno) shut down but when he came back the next day, they were in full compliance and there was no need to shut them down,” Bell said.
The health official “had a discussion” with the restaurant management, and when leaving, 10 to 15-minutes later, Fincher said the health official made contact with a Martinsville Police Officer who was in the parking lot to simply discourage restaurant patrons from loitering.
Fincher said it is common at several eateries for an officer to disperse patrons who gather outside.
The health official made contact with the officer and explained that the restaurant was closed for the rest of the night, Fincher said.
The official also explained that he had addressed concerns with the management and “they said they are going to take care of” the concerns, Fincher said.
“Eventually, the restaurant personnel asked everyone in the restaurant to leave, and we were asking them to leave the parking lot,” Fincher said.
“This was not a situation where we raided a business,” he added. “Our officers never spoke to restaurant employees.”
In fact, Fincher said issues between a restaurant and health officials are considered civil matters, and “law enforcement is very limited as to what we can do.”
The restaurant management “was in agreement” with health officials, Fincher said. “They closed that night and quickly fixed those issues and reopened – not that night” but soon after.
The department’s Mobile Command Center also was reported at the scene, Fincher said.
However, the vehicle, a 1990 Winnebago, had been parked in the lot for two weeks before the incident, at the request of another business that also is located in the Patrick Henry Mall.
Bell said she feels “bad that they are getting kind of drug over this because this is really a good story. Everyone did their job and the restaurant acted quickly to get back in compliance.”
She also disagreed with the characterization of the events as a raid.
“There was no shut down and there was no raid,” Bell said. “I don’t know how you define a raid but I wouldn’t consider a conversation with management as a raid.”