Updated at 4 p.m. Nov. 12, 2015
Failing to apologize or make a refund, the Shelter Island restaurant hit with a major norovirus outbreak has been served notice: It won’t host a local journalism banquet again.
The San Diego Society of Professional Journalists, which saw more than 60 people sickened in late July, has decided to find a new venue after a decade at the Bali Hai.
“As county health inspectors determined this was a foodborne illness, I spoke with Bali Hai co-owner Larry Baumann by phone and sent him a letter, asking for a full refund,” chapter president Matt Hall said Wednesday in a blog post and email to members.
Hall, of The San Diego Union-Tribune and one of the illness victims, said he stressed that the requested refund of $7,122 “would not satisfy any individual’s claim against the venue should any attendee who became sick file such a claim.”
But the club didn’t hear back by phone, email or letter, and Baumann didn’t return Hall’s followup phone call, he said in Wednesday’s note.
- Norovirus ID’d as Cause of Bali Hai Sickness, Afflicting 61 at SPJ Dinner
- Likely Cause of Bali Hai Norovirus Outbreak? Ice at Journalist Party
But Thursday, Baumann contacted Times of San Diego and said a refund is possible after his insurer completes its own investigation.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” Baumann said. “Nobody wants anyone to get sick.” But he said his attorneys and insurer advised him not to respond to the SPJ communications.
He also said he has “issues” with the county health department’s conclusion that ice was the likely source of the illness, saying: “It was not foodborne. It was a virus” spread by human contact.
Baumann argues that many more people would have been sickened had ice been the culprit — with more than 3,400 people exposed during the episode starting July 29.
Regarding the cancellation of future SPJ banquets, Baumann said: “I’m saddened, but I’m certainly not surprised.”
He apologized for not returning Times of San Diego’s call Wednesday, saying he’s a Vietnam vet who took the Veterans Day holiday off.
Hall, upon being informed of the Bali Hai owner’s remarks, told Times of San Diego: “We are pleased Mr. Baumann is still considering our request for a refund and look forward to hearing from him.”
Earlier, Hall said he received a voice message from the insurance carrier for Shelter Island Inc., representing the Bali Hai, “asking for a list of people who needed medical attention and had out-of-pocket medical expenses.”
Hall said he called back to collect more information and got only voicemail.
“He didn’t return the call,” Hall wrote.
As a result, he said, the club has ended its “longstanding relationship with the Bali Hai.”
Hall added: “We are extremely disappointed by its lack of responsiveness and floored, frankly, that no one from the Bali Hai ever apologized to us for this foodborne illness.”
In a Sept. 11 letter to Baumann, Hall hailed the Bali Hai for its great northern view, responsive and responsible staff — “and the price is reasonable for a nonprofit of our size.”
But he said the incident “damaged our organization’s reputation and led to many hours of administrative work by our board members, several of whom fell ill.”
Wednesday, he said the club was eager to talk to other local vendors.
“We know we will find a great fit for an evening celebration of 150 or more journalists, who enjoy eating and drinking and frequenting local establishments that are worthy of our affection 365 days a year.”
What might the San Diego SPJ chapter have done with the refund?
“The board’s preliminary thought was that we might channel that refund into a scholarship fund so that something good could come out of this,” Hall said.
Said Baumann: “The sooner this is wrapped up, the happier I’ll be.”