The Virginia Department of Health has shut down the El Norteno restaurant in Martinsville, and the Virginia ABC permanently has canceled its alcohol license.
The restaurant in the Patrick Henry Mall on East Church Street was the scene of a shootout Friday night that left two people dead and two others seriously wounded.
Police said the altercation began in the bar area of the restaurant and the shooting occurred after 10 p.m., the time restaurants in Virginia are required to stop serving alcohol because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“A member of our environmental health team was inspecting a dozen properties for mask enforcement reasons on the night in question,” said Nancy Bell, population health manager and PIO. “He arrived at El Norteno just after the shooting occurred and remained in his vehicle until the scene was cleared.”
Bell said the West Piedmont Health District suspended the restaurant’s license on Monday “based on documented face mask violations on the evening in question.”
The day after the shooting, the restaurant owners gave up their right to ever serve alcohol on the premises again
Records on file with the State Corporation Commission indicate the restaurant is owned by El Norteno Mexican Restaurant, Inc. with two officers of the company: Salvador Ruiz and Jessica Gonzalez.
Records show El Norteno opened in 2008, but do not indicate when management changed hands.
Former El Norteno owner, Leonardo Ruiz, formed Los Nortenos Mexican Restaurant LLC in 2010 and currently operates that restaurant 2280 Virginia Ave. in Collinsville.
Neither Ruiz nor Gonzalez was able to be reached for comment.
“Following an initial investigation by ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement of a shooting at El Norteno on Feb. 6, the licensee surrendered its license voluntarily and permanently on Feb. 6,” said Valerie Hubbard, ABC's senior public relations specialist. “This means this establishment can no longer purchase or sell alcoholic beverages.
“By signing the License Surrender Agreement, El Norteno knowingly and voluntarily waived its right to a hearing in accordance with the Code of Virginia.”
El Norteno becomes the first restaurant in the West Piedmont Health District to be shut down because of COVID-19 violations.
Although the cancellation of the alcohol license is permanent, the closure by the health department is not.
When a restaurant is closed for violations, the health department requires the management of the establishment to present a satisfactory plan indicating specific changes that will be made in order to bring them into compliance.
It is unknown if Ruiz and Gonzalez intend to file a plan or not.
For now, the bullet-riddled building at the Patrick Henry Mall remains dark.
Police have periodically conducted what they have described as “crowd control” operations in the parking of the restaurant where people have gathered.
One such operation in October occurred during a surprise inspection by the Health Department.
Bell had told the Martinsville Bulletin that “the problem area was in the bar, and sometimes there can be a rough crowd in bars, so the police went along with us.”
Martinsville Deputy Chief Rob Fincher declined to answer questions about the incident and instead deferred those questions to the health department but did confirm his department’s involvement.
“El Norteno was temporarily shut down by the health department over the weekend, and we did assist them the night it was closed,” Fincher wrote in an email.
Later that week Fincher said his officers were there at the same time by coincidence and were working crowd control in the parking lot and unaware there was a surprise inspection going on in the restaurant until the health district’s manager, Darrin Doss, identified himself to two of the officers and told them that “he had closed the restaurant temporarily.”
When Doss notified the officers that he had closed the restaurant, the officers continued working crows control in the parking lot, and at one point an officer entered the restaurant and “asked a manager if they were OK."
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt.