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Chipotle shuts restaurant after patrons fall ill

NEW YORK  - Just when Chipotle (CMG) lovers thought it was safe to dive back into the burrito.

The restaurant chain said it temporarily shut down a restaurant in Virginia this week following reports of customers becoming ill.

Chipotle shut down a location in Sterling, Virginia, on Monday after becoming aware of a "small number" of reported illnesses. It said it is working with health authorities to understand the cause, but the reported symptoms are consistent with norovirus. Chipotle plans to reopen the restaurant after a "complete sanitization."

Chipotle shares fell $17.02, more than 4 percent Tuesday, to close at $374.98.        

The Denver-based company said that norovirus does not come from its food supply and that it is safe to eat at its restaurants.

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Chipotle has been working to bounce back from a series of food scares that started with an E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2015 and included a norovirus case in Boston. More than 100 patrons of the restaurant, including dozens of Boston College student, fell ill with the gastrointestinal illness. The company also was forced to temporarily shut down at least 43 restaurants in Oregon and Washington because of reported E. coli cases.

Novovirus, the most common cause of foodborne illness in the U.S., causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but with proper treatment most patients recover within a few days. A sick employee is believed to have been the source of the outbreak at the Boston Chipotle location.

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Chipotle's financial performance was badly damaged by the food scares, as both its sales and stock price slumped.

The meeting comes after Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. saw its sales slammed by food scares, including an E. coli outbreak and norovirus cases. In January, sales plunged 36 percent at stores open at least 13 months.

Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells apologized in 2016 for the E. coli outbreak. The company also pledged to tighten food safety procedures to prevent further such incidents.

In addition to reassuring customers of the safety measures it has taken, Chipotle had been giving away coupons for free burritos and stepping up marketing to win back customers. For the first three months of this year, sales were up 18 percent at established locations. That followed a 20 percent decline for all of 2016.

Despite its efforts, Chipotle has said it may still be at higher risk for food-borne illnesses than others because of its greater use of fresh produce and meats.

David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department in Virginia, said his office was contacted by Chipotle on Monday and told the company had voluntarily closed the location for a cleaning. Goodfriend said the health department also had been contacted by a couple doctor's offices and residents who reported symptoms.

While he isn't certain that the restaurant was the cause of the illnesses, Goodfriend said individuals were associating their symptoms with the chain.

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