PITTSFIELD — At large City Councilor Yuki Cohen has come forth with documents from the state and city in an attempt to clear her name ahead of the City Council election, after her campaign said a set of very public coronavirus citations at her bar, Methuselah Bar and Lounge, marred her public image over the past year.
“I call it a witch hunt,” Cohen said of the city’s citations against her restaurant.
The documents represent the results of two reviews: one initiated by the state in November for an incident in October 2020, and the other by the city’s hearing officer for several fines issued in December by the city’s Board of Health.
The outbreak in October 2020 prompted the Department of Labor Standards to conduct “a formal review” of Methuselah’s coronavirus safety plan.
In an emailed response, Cohen told a health and safety inspector from the state that she and one other employee had tested positive for the coronavirus after a friend visited the bar. The friend helped clean and shut down the bar for the night and then stayed for drinks after the bar was closed.
The friend had come in with a party of 10 earlier in the evening. When city’s contact tracers investigated a surge in coronavirus cases last year, they linked about 20 cases to the party, the city’s public health nurse manager told The Eagle last year.
It was one of three clusters that city health officials blamed in large part for a resurgence of the virus in the city, causing Mayor Linda Tyer to restrict restaurants to takeout service only. About 30 cases were linked to a 2020 Halloween house party and 60 were linked to PortSmitt’s.
“Somehow I got blamed for that shutdown because they thought I was the cause of the spread,” Cohen said. “The final conclusion from the investigation was that we were the recipients of the virus not the spreaders.”
The state inspector reviewed a brief statement Cohen wrote about the evening, as well as the bar’s coronavirus safety plans and cleaning procedures.
According to an email chain Cohen provided to The Eagle, the inspector concluded that “it appears that the two positives you had” among staff were “associated with customers coming in that were positive and eating at your establishment.”
“Other than that it looks like your COVID plan is pretty good,” the inspector wrote.
In the set of emails Cohen provided, the inspector didn’t appear to address the other cases associated with the outbreak.
Cohen said that the tone of the state’s review was night and day from how she felt during following reviews by the city.
“Like the whole nature of [the state’s] call was to make sure everybody was safe and everybody was getting what they needed,” Cohen said. “I felt like here in Pittsfield it was like let’s catch and punish, as opposed to let’s figure out a way to make everybody safe and improve protocols.”
In December, the Board of Health issued two $500 fines to Methuselah for violations to the state’s workplace safety standards around employee masking and social distancing among customers.
The fines stemmed from a complaint sent to the board from Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio, who received an image of Cohen, along with Ward 6 Councilor Dina Lampiasi and her wife, sharing a drink unmasked at the bar after the business had closed.
Cohen refused to pay the fines, instead appealing the citations with the city’s hearing officer, Dick Bordeau. Cohen argued that the events on Dec. 11 didn’t actually violate state safety standards, and that the city’s process for handling the complaints violated its own code and state orders on fine limits.
Cohen provided The Eagle with an image Oct. 1 of a letter dated July 20 from Bordeau stating that the violations had been dismissed after a July 14 hearing.
For almost a month, The Eagle has sought comment from Interim Health Director Andy Cambi and Bordeau as to the citation process and why the fines were overturned. Cambi, who served as the city’s Senior Sanitarian and handled coronavirus safety complaints during the period in question, and Bordeau have not responded to multiple requests for comments.
On Oct. 20, The Eagle submitted a records request for the hearing notes and all city communications related to the fines. City Clerk Michele Benjamin said that request is due back from the Health Department on or before Nov. 3.
Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Methuselah Bar and Lounge has received several other written warnings and citations regarding coronavirus safety protocols — including one instance where Cohen was filmed dancing maskless on the bar. The Licensing Board also revoked the bar’s liquor and entertainment licenses for a month each as a result of that incident.
Cohen admits that she made mistakes — joking that “I’ll be sure the next time I’m dancing on the bar I’ll have a mask on” — but she doesn’t want those mistakes to limit what she says she can do for residents.
“People make mistakes; some of it was my mistakes, some of it was that I felt wrongfully accused, and some of it was, you know, a frenzy of false information,” Cohen said.
“I just really want to make the city better and participate [and help] the city make decisions,” she said. “I hope that people don’t look at me with just that one single lens.”