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In fast-food scare, some slow to close

Dec 4, 2006 | Newsday

Several Taco Bell restaurants in Nassau County remained open last night, despite fears that they might be linked to an E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least a dozen people on the island.

All four affected restaurants in Suffolk were closed.

A location at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville was still open at 6:15 p.m. while another in East Meadow remained open at 7:45 p.m. By 8:20 p.m., however, the store in Hempstead had closed.

At the Taco Bell at Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City at about 7 p.m., customers became angry when they found out that the restaurant was operating even though officials suspected it in the E. coli scare.

Judy Musick, 57, of Fresh Meadows confronted the manager after having eaten at the restaurant with her grandson.

"I'm absolutely flabbergasted," said Musick, who said her 12-year-old grandson had requested the restaurant.

"I never gave it a second thought because I never heard anything else. He just wanted his chicken and cheese, and I didn't think it would be a problem. God forbid something happens."

The manager of that location said health officials had visited the restaurant earlier and told them everything was fine.

Taco Bell president Greg Creed said the company began working with health officials immediately after learning of the E.coli issue, and that the company was in the process of "sanitizing these isolated restaurants and replacing all the food ingredients."

Nassau officials said they received word from Taco Bell about 7:30 p.m. Monday that four stores in East Meadow, Hicksville, Hempstead and Roosevelt Field Mall, where the outbreak had been traced would close temporarily for disinfection and destruction of food. The chain did not say when the restaurants would close, said Joe Calderone, a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi.

"We heard from Taco Bell, who said they would close them," said Calderone. "They didn't say when. They said, 'later.'"

Several teenagers were still eating at the East Meadow location when a reporter visited at about 7:45 p.m., despite the small group of citizens standing outside, warning people to stay away.

"If it closed, I don't know what we'd do," said Dan Lebowitz, 18, of East Meadow, who was there with two friends.

At least four Suffolk County Taco Bell restaurants were closed by last night. Employees at the Patchogue location dumped bag after bag of tortillas and other food into a garbage bin. A manager there, talking on the phone with Taco Bell corporate headquarters, declined to comment.

Commack High School biology teacher James McCaughran, 57, had planned on a quick dinner at the Taco Bell in Port Jefferson Station. But the restaurant was closed, and inside employees could be seen scrubbing equipment.

Months earlier, McCaughran had taught his class about the E. coli outbreak in California's spinach supply this summer. Now, he said, he'll likely teach them about bacteria in fast food.

David Abut, 43, was bewildered to find the Taco Bell in Deer Park closed. Abut said he visits the restaurant at least once a week. "It's good, it's quick," he said. "I work in the city, so there's no cooking on weekdays." The disappointed Deer Park resident headed back to his car, in search of other means of sustenance. "I hope there's no E. coli in Chinese food," he said, before driving away.

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