Athol Board of Health wrestles with club reopenings

  • Fraternal Order of Eagles Club #4545 in Athol. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

  • The American Lithuanian Naturalization Club in Athol. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 7/31/2020 4:05:51 PM
Modified: 7/31/2020 4:05:46 PM

ATHOL — The Board of Health has been fielding a lot of questions recently, inquiring as to why some private clubs in Athol have been allowed to reopen, while others — along with the town’s two bars — must remain shuttered until Gov. Baker’s Phase 4 reopening plan goes into effect.

“We actually had one of the bars call us up,” said Athol Health Agent Deb Vondal, “wondering about, could they open, but they did not give us any formal request. The bottom line is, bars are not allowed to be open until Phase 4 — if we ever reach Phase 4.”

Vondal pointed out that restaurants currently are allowed to serve alcohol, as long as they are serving food prepared on the premises.

“In order to be a restaurant, under the sector-specific guidance for restaurants,” she continued, “‘restaurant’ is specifically defined as being ‘an establishment that provides seated food service that is prepared on site’ under a retail food permit.

“That would require food permits that cost $150, and they are subject to two inspections a year, at minimum.”

She said some inquiries from private clubs have arisen because another club, the Athol-Orange Eagles Club on Hapgood Street, has been allowed to open and serve alcohol.

“We allowed it for the Eagles because they did, prior to COVID, already have prepared food on site; they did have a prepared menu,” said Vondal. “It was limited but did as a board OK that because they were already preparing foods on site. And, just like the restaurants, they can’t utilize their bar — even for seating for eating.”

“So, were there complaints from other places that they wanted to be open even though they didn’t offer sit-down, prepared food?” asked board Chair Marty Miarecki.

“They don’t understand the difference,” Vondal responded. “Somebody wrote us a note but, unfortunately, did not identify themselves, wanting to know why are (the Eagles) open but none of the other bars can open? But we did get a call from the American-Lit (American-Lithuanian Naturalization) Club asking us if they could open up somehow.”

“The Eagles isn’t opening up as a private club and bar,” said board member Joan Hamlett, “they’re opening up as a restaurant, following all the criteria of a restaurant. So, the only answer to any of these bars or other private clubs would be, ‘If you want to open up under all those same restaurant criteria, as a restaurant has to open up, then you could.

“That means you have to have food fully prepared on the premises. You would have to have a kitchen. We have a couple of bars that don’t even have a kitchen, so they wouldn’t be able to open up even if they wanted to.

“So, the Eagles didn’t get anything special,” Hamlett continued, “They are opening up under restaurant criteria and they’re serving their alcohol during food service hours, and not beyond.”

She said any establishment that wanted to follow suit would have to meet all the requirements.

“If they want to open up their kitchen, they need to get it certified by a state-certified person, and prepare a menu,” she said. “But it can’t be ready-to-eat food; it can’t be snacks.

“I’ve been asked the question, ‘Can I just serve hot dogs and open up my bar?’ No. A hot dog is a ready-to-eat food you can just take out the package and hand to somebody.

“Now, we’re not saying you can’t serve hot dogs, but that can’t be your only menu item.”

“What is your feeling on bars opening as a restaurant?” asked board member Norma Purple. “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

“Right now,” Mialecki responded, “I would say ‘no,’ definitely not. If they’re doing it just to avoid the regulations — that’s not the idea, to let someone open up just to avoid the regulations.”

“Well, we did set precedent with the Eagles,” said Hamlett. “If anybody presents that they can open as a restaurant and meet the criteria, how do say ‘yes’ to one and not the other?”

“The Eagles have been open all along for serving food,” Miarecki answered. They’ve already been open to serve prepared food on site. It’s not like they just started.”

“I’m just using this as an example” said Hamlett, “but the Steel Pub has been closed all these months. If the owner decides, ‘I no longer want to be a bar, I’m now going to be the Steel Grill and Restaurant,’ we can’t stop him from changing the use of his business and reapplying as a restaurant.”

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