A Cambridge gastropub that transformed itself into a makeshift clinic for COVID-19 antibody testing was forced to put the operation on hold amid questions about proper permits, zoning requirements, and medical licensing this week.
According to city officials and a post on Wit’s End’s social media pages Tuesday, the Inman Square bar has stopped taking clients for its newly minted phlebotomy operation, after Cambridge issued a “zoning use challenge” to the company, effectively shutting it down for now.
“City staff determined that the premises were being used for a medical office without a certificate of occupancy for the change,” a city spokesman said in a statement.
Officials ordered the business closed "until the owner demonstrates compliance with the City’s Zoning Ordinance and obtains a certificate of occupancy for the new use, in addition to any other licenses or permits required.”
Peter Stein, the bar’s owner, said on Facebook and Instagram: “We are attempting to work with [the city] to get back open as soon as we can.“
“Sorry to those who were looking forward to testing!” he wrote.
Last Thursday, Stein announced on social media and the bar’s website that he had turned the establishment into a phlebotomy clinic with his brother, Dr. Benjamin Stein, after he was forced to close his doors in March because of the state mandate aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.
“I looked outside in Inman Square and how sleepy it was, and it kind of got to me,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “I was wondering, ‘What could I do to help out the city, and the area, and the community?’ ”
Stein said he reorganized and sanitized the restaurant and worked with his brother to transform it into what he called a “medical practice," and soon after began accepting customers who wanted blood drawn to see if they had virus antibodies.
Experts say people can contract and spread the coronavirus without ever exhibiting symptoms. The revelation has left many people wondering if they may have already had it, but just didn’t know. Though not always accurate, getting an antibody test could potentially answer that question — and prove helpful as the state seeks to slowly reopen the economy.
“We’re trying to do a good thing,” Stein said.
But the bar’s pop-up medical clinic came to a standstill following a City Council meeting Monday night in which elected officials questioned some aspects of the operation.
During the hearing, City Councilor Alanna Mallon called the bar’s conversion “a little bit odd and quite honestly concerning.”
“I wasn’t able to get an answer on this this weekend, on whether or not they had a permit through public health or licensing” she said during the virtual meeting.
In response, City Solicitor Nancy Glowa said the Public Health Department contacted the state division of medical licensing to inquire about the practice and the state informed them that there was no doctor licensed in Massachusetts under Dr. Benjamin Stein, as advertised on the bar’s website.
Glowa said they asked the state to take enforcement action, and were told that would happen promptly.
“It’s not clear to us that we can shut the business down from a medical licensure point of view at the local level," Glowa said, "but we will follow up on it as aggressively as we can over the next day or so.”
Glowa said prior to Monday’s meeting the city’s Inspectional Services Department visited the site and determined that the bar had a sandwich board sign out front on the sidewalk. It was later removed because Wit’s End didn’t have a permit for the signage. A second sign in the window was also taken down, she said.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Mallon said she has “a lot of questions and concerns about a restaurant pivoting to a phlebotomy clinic overnight with no permits from the City or the State to do so.”
“Given the future appetite for this type of testing,” she said, “I think it’s important for the Massachusetts Department of Health to issue clear guidelines for future cases so municipalities can act accordingly.”
Stein told the Globe that his brother, a general practitioner whose office is in New York City, received an “emergency temporary license” to practice medicine in Massachusetts three weeks ago, which is why they forged ahead with the plan. Peter Stein said he thought existing zoning allowed for medical use of the restaurant’s space. He mentioned that the building the bar is located in also houses a medical office.
“We’re doing everything by the book,” said the 48-year-old Newton resident.
View this post on Instagram
And... Pivot! Being closed for months has caused so many serious challenges for restaurants, employees, communities, families and small businesses. I'm not good doing nothing. So... In an attempt to make lemonade (from the lemons we were going to use as garnishes!), I have partnered with the medical practice of Dr. Benjamin Stein, MD and converted Wit's End into a medical office focused on Covid Antibody Testing! We are screening for temperature and oxygen levels, mandating strict 6' distancing guidelines, dressed in full PPE and are dedicated to a sterile, sanitized environment. Tomorrow, we open. Antibody testing is for currently HEALTHY people who believe they may have had Covid-19 in the past and/or are curious to see if they have been exposed. There are too many details for this post, but you can go to http://tinyurl.com/iwantantibodies to get more information and sign up for a test. The test we are using requires a full blood draw by experienced phlebotomists. The sample is sent to a leading off-site commercial laboratory and results are available within a week. The cost for the service is $119 payable at your appointment PLUS the cost of the lab test itself - which is most likely covered by insurance (the test is about $70 and the lab will bill your insurance company directly). That's it. Go to tinyurl.com/iwantantibodies to sign up for a slot. Please help us and the community out and share and forward to everyone you know. (You can still enjoy our movie wall.... 6' apart... In the waiting area!) Cheers, Pete
A spokeswoman from the state Department of Public Health confirmed Wednesday that Dr. Benjamin Stein has received an “emergency temporary license,” which physicians — even those from out of state — can apply for under an executive order in response to the pandemic.
However, she said, “per DPH regulations, the business may not promote itself as a ‘clinic’ since it is not licensed by the state.”
An investigation by the department’s Board of Registration in Medicine enforcement unit is ongoing, officials said.
Stein, who opened Wit’s End in 2017, said he had hoped that converting the restaurant space would not only be a good resource for those who wanted to get tested for antibodies, but also a way to provide new jobs to some of his employees whom he had to let go back in March. A dishwasher had been acting as the operation’s cleaner, sterilizing chairs and surfaces. A server was working as a medical assistant, he said.
“Having to let everyone go on a dime without any advance notice was terrible,” said Stein. “I’ve never encountered anything like that before.”
In its four days of operation, the restaurant had tested about 40 to 50 patients, said Stein. He thought the clinic could handle “upwards of 100-plus patients a day.”
Anyone entering the former dining area for a blood test was required to wear a mask, adhere to social distancing rules, and provide a “brief history and your temperature and oxygen levels” upon arrival.
Wit’s End was charging $119 to have blood drawn by the phlebotomists on site. Patients would be charged an additional $50 to $70 for an off-site commercial laboratory to run the antibody test.
While results were promised within days, Wit’s End posted a checklist of disclaimers about the accuracy of the tests on its website.
In an interview, Dr. Benjamin Stein acknowledged that testing accuracy is "a key issue,” and said that no antibody tests for COVID-19 have yet received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
However, he added, he believes the tests — even without 100 percent accuracy — could prove to be helpful in providing data that reflected “where the disease is and where it is not.”
“We’ll continue to stay on the cutting edge of what tests are commercially available,” he said Tuesday, before being shut down.
On Facebook, hours after announcing the closure, the bar told people to “stay tuned” as they “navigate these complicated waters."
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.