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City hasn't informed public of nearly 400 temporary license suspensions

For almost a month late this spring, devotees of Tealuxe, the popular Newbury Street tea house and cafe, had to go elsewhere for their Darjeeling and the sandwiches and other lighter fare the restaurant serves.

That is because Tealuxe was closed -- for mechanical repairs, its manager, Ryan Moore, insisted in an interview Friday.

In fact, it was shuttered because at least 21 people, including 10 employees, were exposed to the salmonella bacteria the first week of May, according to an internal report prepared by the Boston Public Health Commission. Of those, 11 patrons and three employees became ill.

And Boston health inspectors quickly discovered several major health code violations, including inadequate cleanliness standards, according to Lisa Timberlake, the spokeswoman for the Boston Inspectional Services Department.

After the scope of the outbreak became clear, Timberlake said, the restaurant voluntarily closed May 16. Its scheduled reopening June 7 was postponed because some violations remained uncorrected. It reopened June 22, she said.

The scope of the outbreak, and its origin at Tealuxe, became clear in early May after several reports of food poisoning surfaced, some from as far away as Virginia and Pennsylvania, from people who had eaten at Tealuxe April 28, according to the commission report and Timberlake.

Salmonella is a regular suspect in many food-borne illnesses, and it typically causes diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. It is normally spread by fecal contamination of food, according to the commission's epidemiological report.

What was unusual about the outbreak was the number of victims -- and the fact that the city chooses not to inform the public when it closes a restaurant for public health reasons. Over a recent five-year period, the city, without public notice, temporarily suspended the licenses of almost 400 food service establishments.

The Globe was told about the Tealuxe case Friday and then asked the city for the documents.

Tealuxe's Newbury Street cafe is one of three Tealuxe outlets, including the original establishment in Harvard Square and another outlet in Providence.

When a Globe reporter called Moore, the manager, and asked about a public health problem, Moore denied there had been one.

"We had some maintenance issues we had to deal with, that's why we were closed," he said. "We had to fix a leaky pipe, but it ended up going beyond a leaking pipe. It was all mechanical." When the Globe asked for contact information for other company officials, he said: "You'll get the same story from everybody."

When the Globe challenged Moore's account, he denied that anyone had been ill. "There was no public health issue. There was nothing related to the health code. We had no health code violations," Moore insisted.

Henry Rubien, the operations manager for the Tealuxe chain, did not respond to phone messages Friday.

Dr. Nancy Norman, the medical director of the Public Health Commission, said in an interview that outbreaks of the sort that occurred at Tealuxe can be prevented if employees wash their hands thoroughly.

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