TULSA, Okla. – State health officials and a northeastern Oklahoma restaurant at the center of this summer's deadly E. coli outbreak have signed an agreement to reopen the eatery, even though officials have never pinpointed the source of the contamination.
The two-page document, obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request, lists several conditions that must be met before the Country Cottage restaurant in the small town of Locust Grove — about 50 miles east of Tulsa — can reopen.
They include disconnecting a private well on the property, allowing for repeat environmental testing in the restaurant upon request and implementing a monitoring system for employee hand-washing.
However, investigators have yet to identify the exact source of the outbreak, and a precise reopening date has yet to be determined.
The August outbreak became the largest in the nation's history for the rare E. coli strain O111, killing one man and sickening more than 300 adults and children in the blue-collar community of 1,500.
Those sickened range in age from a few months to 88 years.
The outbreak has been blamed for the death of 26-year-old Chad Ingle of Pryor, who died Aug. 24, a week after eating at the restaurant.
Several young children required dialysis after being sickened.
Department of Health spokeswoman Leslea Bennett-Webb said the state set the bar "even higher" for the restaurant in requiring the improvements.
Last week, health inspectors swabbed 35 different points inside the restaurant for bacterial infection and they came back clean, according to inspection records.
"There is no absolute guarantee," Bennett-Webb cautioned. "An inspection is a point in time, and things can go south very quickly."
Further provisions in the agreement include requiring all restaurant employees to complete a food-handlers class and developing plans to monitor cleaning, food temperature and other requirements identified through routine inspections for a year, the document states.
Additionally, the agreement states that each kitchen manager and owner will get a food service manager's certificate by attending training conducted by representatives of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association.
The first confirmed cases of E. coli O111 began Aug. 15, and most of the cases occurred within that week. The last reported illness came on Sept. 6.
During the monthlong scare, restaurants in the small town were nearly empty, and residents made runs on bottled water as rumors spread that the problem was really in the town's water supply.
The Country Cottage, a buffet-style eatery off the main drag that drew hundreds of customers each week and doubled as an economic engine for Locust Grove, employed about 60. It was famous for down-home dishes like chicken-fried steak, catfish and homemade rolls.
The link shocked many in town who saw the Cottage as the town's lifeblood.
But even though the health department connected the outbreak to the restaurant, officials have still been unable to pinpoint the origin of the E. coli, even after interviewing more than 1,800 people.
Food samples taken from the restaurant revealed no signs of contamination, but it's possible the tainted food had already been thrown out.
On Thursday, residents welcomed the possibility that the Country Cottage was one step closer to reopening.
"It is definitely a morale boost for our community," said Shawn Bates, the town's mayor.
At her beauty shop on Main Street, Elaine Clark called it "an answer to prayer," because the eatery employed so many people.
"It's just a blessing that all this is happening," she said. "Everyone's going to be so thrilled, that's the buzz around town."