Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Wit’s End Bar in Inman Square posted a photo collage on Facebook showing it’s brief transformation into an office to draw blood for a coronavirus antibody test.

Can a bar that’s closed because of the pandemic morph into a doctor’s office that offers Covid-19 antibody tests? One did in Inman Square, for a little more than a weekend. On Tuesday, the city shut down the operation for allegedly violating zoning rules.

The end for the short-lived Wit’s End antibody testing venture came after a confusing discussion at Monday’s meeting of the City Council, especially in light of subsequent events. At the meeting, vice mayor Alanna Mallon asked how the city was responding to the business’ switch from alcohol to medicine. “It may not be the right thing, public health wise,” she said. “We don’t know much about this type of antibody testing and when would our public health departments step in and say this is not permitted, it’s not approved? It’s not something that we want one of our establishments to be moving forward with.”

It appeared that a doctor’s office at Wit’s End is permitted under zoning regulations and that the city might have no authority over medical practices, city solicitor Nancy Glowa said. Cambridge officials had turned to the state and meanwhile forced the bar to remove a window sign and an outdoor sandwich board promoting the testing, she said.

The Wit’s End bar in Inman Square, seen in June. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Glowa said the state Department of Public Health had told the Cambridge Public Health Department that “there was no doctor licensed in Massachusetts with the name that was advertised on the website of this business,” and that the state agency would take unspecified enforcement action “promptly.”

That doctor, Benjamin Stein, said in an interview that he was indeed licensed in Massachusetts; he holds an emergency temporary license granted to out-of-state doctors under a state program allowing physicians licensed in another state to practice in Massachusetts to help meet the increased need for medical workers during the pandemic.

Stein, who is licensed in New York as an emergency and urgent care doctor, also said he talked to someone from the Cambridge health department on Friday and provided his Massachusetts emergency license number. Asked why he didn’t use his emergency physician’s license and expertise to help out in crowded Massachusetts emergency departments instead of opening the antibody testing business, the doctor said he could help only one person at a time in an emergency room, but “you are able to help more people” in a business venture.

Spokesmen for the city and the state said Tuesday that they were looking into the issue. That was before city inspectors arrived at Wit’s End around 12:30 p.m. and ordered owner Peter Stein – Benjamin Stein’s brother – to close. “This is the second time I’ve had to close and lay off my employees,” Stein said. The first closing came when the city ordered restaurants and bars to stop serving customers except for takeout, he said.

An inspector told Stein that Wit’s End couldn’t legally change its use from a bar and restaurant to a doctor’s office, although the building itself might be permitted, Stein said. He noted that a doctor practices on the second floor of the building. In a Facebook post, the bar said it was trying to “work with [the city] to get back open as soon as we can.” Stein said about 40 people had been tested since Friday.

City spokesman Jeremy Warnick confirmed after the shutdown that “the premises were being used for a medical office without a certificate of occupancy for the change of use having been obtained.” The antibody testing operation was “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,” he said in an email.

Seemed like a good idea

On Tuesday morning, unaware a shutdown was near, Stein and three employees had been wearing masks, protective gowns and face shields waiting for customers next to a table painted with a chess board from the business, which had advertised games along with drinks and food when it was open. Bottles of liquor lined shelves behind the polished wooden bar.

Stein said his brother, the doctor, proposed the testing venture and he embraced it as a way to “help the community, help my employees and bridge the gap” for his business during the shutdown. Four of eight employees were working for the testing site, he said.

The “Beyond the Call” newsletter by LinkedIn wrote about the Wit’s End venture in a post about “How companies have stepped up during Covid-19,” outlining how the plan had come together as a way to pay rent, as the landlord kept collecting despite the business being closed. When it came to putting together a staff, a “bartender had gone to nursing school, and she made a great phlebotomist,” the article says.

Antibody testing

Antibody testing for Covid-19 is controversial in some quarters, with scientists saying many tests are being marketed with no assurance of accuracy. The presence of antibodies in someone’s blood shows they were infected with the virus, but does not show they are immune.

Benjamin Stein, the doctor, agreed that “we don’t know if the antibodies confer immunity. Medicine isn’t based on certainty and never has been.” Still, he said, “it’s very likely that the antibodies do convey an element of immunity, some degree of significant protection. Somebody who’s tested positive on our test is infinitely safer than a random person walking around.”

Stein operates a clinic in New York that offers diagnostic testing for the virus, the type that analyzes material from patients’ nose and throat to identify genetic snippets of Covid-19. The city and the Cambridge Health Alliance are providing that kind of test at nursing homes, homeless shelters and now a site for all residents in East Cambridge, to identify people who are currently infected. Antibody tests use a blood sample and can show if a person has been infected in the past.

Both kinds of tests rely on laboratories to analyze samples collected in the field. Wit’s End was charging customers $119 to collect, process and ship a blood sample. Depending on the lab that would analyze the sample, it might cost another $50 to $70, according to the bar’s website. On April 27, Quest Diagnostics, the national laboratory, began offering $119 antibody tests to consumers without a doctor’s referral at some of its locations.

Before the operation was shut down, Wit’s End planned to offer $20 tests to health care workers, Peter Stein said. Stein opened Wit’s End in 2017.