'It's been a tough situation': Calgary Shawarma chain cleared after norovirus outbreak

Alberta Health Services says a review linked to a norovirus outbreak at a chain of Calgary restaurants has ended.

Between Dec. 3 and Dec. 22, AHS received 89 complaints involving approximately 200 ill individuals who said they ate at a Jerusalem Shawarma location and subsequently became ill, the agency said Friday.

"AHS has ended the review of illness linked to Jerusalem Shawarma outlets in Calgary, as no new illnesses have been reported since Dec. 22," said AHS spokesperson Don Stewart in an email to CBC News. "Norovirus has been confirmed in six cases of illness."

Stewart said AHS conducted 27 inspections at Jerusalem Shawarma locations and worked with owners to determine how the outbreak would be contained.

Staff members were required to implement enhanced handwashing procedures — utilizing hand sanitizer and gloves, in addition to regular handwashing — until the outbreak ended.

The restaurants were not closed down during the review. According to AHS, only four of the 10 Jerusalem Shawarma locations were tied to the outbreak.

'It's been a tough situation'

Izzo Abufarha, one of the co-owners of Jerusalem Shawarma, said the situation has been difficult for all the restaurant's employees.

"We work as a family, and we have employees. A lot of them support their families," Abufarha said. "It's been a tough situation. It's not been easy for us."

As a part of the review, Jerusalem Shawarma employees incorporated extra handwashing and sanitizing into their routines — but Abufarha said cleanliness has always been a priority for the chain.

"There's nothing shady here. We wanted to get the peoples' trust — they trusted us with their health," he said. "If we're not up to that responsibility, we should not be in business."

Hala Ghonaim/CBC

Abufarha said he wanted to apologize to all those Calgarians who had fallen ill, and said he appreciated the support from those residents who supported the chain after the outbreak was reported.

"[AHS] told us, we've always been clean," Abufarha said. "I can claim we're [going to be] even cleaner than before. Hopefully, this is going to come back with a good result for us."

'I know how they operate'

Nader Essa said he has been a customer at Jerusalem Shawarma for more than five years, often eating at the chain once a week. 

He said he believed the chain had taken the necessary steps to address the outbreak.

"It never bothered me to hear the news because I know how they operate. They're very safe, the ingredients are safe," Essa said. "[The news] didn't bother me. It made me question things."

Hala Ghonaim/CBC

Essa said he wasn't surprised that customers had rallied behind the chain in support.

"These customers have been customers for a long time. So they already know what the operation is or how the operation runs," he said. "That's why they would rally behind [the chain] and have some food here."

Not a serious illness

Individuals with norovirus may have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping, but the symptoms are not regarded as serious.

The illness is most often spread when individuals do not wash their hands. It is considered highly contagious.

AHS said the virus is often spread during the fall and winter, and can be easily spread through ingestion of food contaminated by an infected individual or through contact with any surface contaminated with the virus.

Symptoms can last up to 60 hours, but an individual with the virus is considered contagious up to 48 hours after they feel better.