A Martinsville restaurant that was the scene of a deadly shootout two weeks ago is back open for business after being shut down by the health department for violating COVID-19 restrictions that night.
The restaurant also permanently has lost its liquor license, but that had no bearing on the health department’s decision to allow it to reopen.
A shootout inside the restaurant at the Patrick Henry Mall in Martinsville on Feb. 5 left two people dead and two others seriously wounded.
Police said the altercation began in the bar area of the restaurant, and the shooting occurred after 10 p.m., the time restaurants in Virginia are required to stop serving alcohol because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“A member of our environmental health team was inspecting a dozen properties for mask-enforcement reasons on the night in question,” said Nancy Bell, population health manager and spokesperson for West Piedmont Health District. “He arrived at El Norteno just after the shooting occurred and remained in his vehicle until the scene was cleared.”
She said the health department suspended the restaurant’s license on Feb. 8, “based on documented face-mask violations on the evening in question.”
Darrin Doss, an environmental health manager for the Virginia Department of Health, said, “Environmental health staff conducted a follow-up inspection subsequent to the permit suspension to review El Norteno’s mitigation plan to ensure no further violations of executive orders regarding COVID-19 would occur.
“Based on these observations, the West Piedmont Health District moved to rescind the summary suspension based upon these observations and the restaurant’s reasonable assurance the reasons for the summary suspension were satisfactorily mitigated.”
The day after the shooting, the restaurant’s owners, Salvador Ruiz and Jessica Gonzalez, through El Norteno Mexican Restaurant Inc., gave up their right to serve alcohol on the premises ever again.
“Following an initial investigation by ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement of a shooting at El Norteno on Feb. 5, the licensee surrendered its license voluntarily and permanently on Feb. 6,” said Valerie Hubbard, ABC’s senior public relations specialist. “This means this establishment can no longer purchase or sell alcoholic beverages.
“By signing the License Surrender Agreement, El Norteno knowingly and voluntarily waived its right to a hearing in accordance with the Code of Virginia.”
El Norteno became the first restaurant in the West Piedmont Health District to be shut down because of COVID-19 violations.
Although the cancellation of the alcohol license was permanent, the closure by the health department includes a process for mitigation.
The health department requires the management of the establishment to present a satisfactory plan that includes specific changes that will be made in order to bring the business into compliance.
“In essence, they created a plan that we could verify compliance with the executive orders and hold them accountable for future violations,” Bell said.
On Wednesday, the restaurant posted a statement on its Facebook page:
“El Norteño Mexican Restaurant would like to extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and families of the tragic event of February 5, 2021. Our hearts are broken that lives were lost and many were injured.
“We appreciate the quick response of our courageous law enforcement agencies from across the region, paramedics, and first responders. As we move forward from this tragic event, we are taking extra precautions to ensure safety in all areas, especially COVID-19.
“We look forward to reuniting with our customers and friends who have always been there for us.”
But a winter storm bringing rain, sleet, ice and snow arrived Wednesday night and continued through the day on Thursday, preventing the restaurant from opening as planned.
About 10 a.m. on Thursday another post was made to Facebook:
“Good morning Norteno family. We will be closed today due to bad weather. Stay safe see you soon.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt.