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Why is Chipotle closing all its stores for a day? (+video)

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Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

(Read caption) In this Nov. 2, 2015, file photo, a pedestrian walks past a closed Chipotle restaurant in Seattle.

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Don’t worry, it’s not permanent.

Chipotle is set to close all of its nearly 2,000 North American restaurants for several hours on Monday, Feb. 8, after reports of successive outbreaks of food poisoning.

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“We are hosting a national team meeting to thank our employees for their hard work through this difficult time, discuss some of the food safety changes we are implementing, and answer questions from employees,” Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, said in an email to The New York Times.

The restaurants will open 3 p.m. on Feb. 8 instead of its usual lunchtime start at 10 or 11 a.m. In the meeting, Chipotle employees will focus on how to improve food safety.

It’s been a bad six months for Chipotle, which built its brand on fresh and locally grown ingredients. Since July, there have been more than a handful of bacterial contaminations, resulting in about 500 people reporting illness after eating its food in the latter half of 2015.

It started in Seattle, when five Chipotle customers reported that they fell ill with what public health officials determined was E. coli. In August, in Simi Valley, Calif.,  234 people were reported to have been sickened by what was thought to be a norovirus. And then in September, 64 people were affected by an outbreak of what the Minnesota Department of Health attributed to salmonella from bad tomatoes. Nine were hospitalized.

In October, 53 people across nine states were reported to have become ill after eating at Chipotle, according to a Center of Disease Control report. Finally in December, 140 people in Boston, mostly college students, were diagnosed with norovirus, said to be the most common cause of stomach illness in the US. Chipotle has said that the latter outbreak was caused by sick employees who didn’t follow company procedure, which doesn’t allow them to work.

“I’ve been involved in every food-borne illness outbreak, small and large, since 1993,” said Bill Marler, a lawyer from Seattle specializing in food-borne illnesses and has filed several recent cases against Chipotle. “I can’t think of any chain, restaurant or food manufacturer who’s ever reported that many outbreaks in just six months. Underlying that has to be a lack of controls.”

At least nine lawsuits have been filed by Chipotle customers.

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"I represent a total of 75 people, but I haven't filed all their lawsuits yet," Mr. Marler told the Chicago Tribune.

The unfortunate series of events for Chipotle is yet to be over. The company announced last week that it has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in a criminal investigation related to the norovirus outbreak in California. Typically, federal authorities focus on manufacturers and farmers in food-borne illness investigations, but with Chipotle, there has been speculation that the restaurant itself is involved.

Meanwhile, sales have plummeted. At a once high of $750, Chipotle’s stock has dropped to $428 per share – a 42 percent decrease. The company said it thinks the recent outbreaks will ultimately cost between $14 million and $16 million.

“We did a really comprehensive review of food safety practices from farm to restaurants,” Mr. Arnold said. “From that assessment we developed a food safety plan, which we hope will establish Chipotle as a leader in food safety.”

Chipotle CEO Steve Ells told investors this week that his restaurants are now “safer than ever.” Next month, he added, the company will launch a new marketing campaign.