FALL RIVER — The bathrooms in Frank Braga’s Fall River Dunkin’ are now off limits to everyone except employees.
“When you get two ODs and a third that’s possibly close in one day that’s when you decide that’s enough,” he said.
There are convenience stores in the city with branded coffee operations inside such as Honey Dew Donuts and Dunkin’ that don’t permit customers to use the bathrooms.
And some fast food restaurants and donut shops choose between an electronic buzzer, manual door-key or punch-code door system in letting people enter restrooms, which helps ensure that only customers use those washrooms.
But Braga’s Dunkin’ at 234 Milliken Boulevard is now the only eatery in Fall River that lets customers inside for takeout orders but doesn’t allow them to use either the ladies’ or men’s rooms.
Because his dining room remains closed Braga isn’t required by law to provide a bathroom. But up until a couple weeks ago he had provided that courtesy.
Braga says he instituted his zero-tolerance policy after one of his employees called him while he was taking a short vacation on Block Island.
On that Saturday, Braga said, his manager told him police had been called earlier in the day after an employee found a man passed out in the men’s room.
The second incident that day, however, was even more alarming.
Braga said he was told that a man and woman walked in together and had each gone into their respective bathrooms.
The woman, who had come out first and sat on the front steps of the building to wait for her companion, was in rough shape.
“She was pretty much passed out,” Braga said.
He said one of his workers attempted to perform CPR on the woman before the fire department’s EMS ambulance arrived.
Her companion, meanwhile, was passed out in the men’s room after having overdosed on drugs.
Braga says he was told that a mother and her two young children were customers in his Dunkin’ when the incident transpired.
He said he’s not naïve when it comes to recognizing there continues to be an opioid crisis in Fall River and the rest of the country. But Braga says “it’s a sad reality when you walk into a coffee shop and see it.”
“It’s a real hard situation for our employees and the families who come in (and) I’m not going to put them at risk.”
“It doesn’t matter how many times it happens, it’s always disturbing,” Braga added.
Gov. Charlie Baker in late June issued an executive order allowing restaurants to reinstate dining room service but only with social distancing guidelines in place, as a precaution against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the drive-thru lane, many Dunkin’ stores allow customers inside to place and carry out orders, but the company so far has not given franchisees the green light to reopen dining areas.
Braga said he became a Dunkin’ (then known as Dunkin’ Donuts) franchisee 20 years ago when he built the Milliken Boulevard store. He says it’s one of the busier locations in the city.
In addition to being located less than a block from the Columbia Street residential neighborhood of mostly triple-decker apartment buildings, the Milliken Boulevard Dunkin’ sits atop a highway exit that connects to Interstate 195.
That means in addition to local residents it also has its fair share of visitors to nearby Battleship Cove, with its array of WWII naval vessels, or tourists and vacationers stopping off on their way to Cape Cod.
Braga said he previously had a lenient policy when it came to his washrooms.
He left it up to the discretion of his staff whether to ask anyone if they were going to buy something before they went into a bathroom.
Braga also says when his employees did occasionally use the buzzer system, which controls a main door leading to the two restrooms, it was at night.
But he said the phone call he received while on Block Island was the last straw, despite the fact that it was something of an anomaly.
He says his staff normally has to call 911 no more than once or twice a year to report an individual who has overdosed on heroin or fentanyl and lost consciousness on the toilet or floor.
But he says he’s noticed that the frequency of people shooting up in his bathrooms and leaving behind used syringes has increased especially during the last five years.
Braga recounted how a year and a half ago, while cleaning up a bathroom, one of his workers was injured while tying off a garbage bag.
“A needle poked her in the hand,” he said.
The employee went to the hospital and luckily tested negative for any disease that can be transmitted through a needle.
Braga also says that picking up and discarding of needles in and adjacent to his parking lot is not an uncommon occurrence.
In the two decades since he’s owned and operated the Milliken Boulevard Dunkin’ he says he’s aware of one opioid-related fatality associated with the business.
Braga said one man who had gone into his bathroom two years ago on New Year’s Day to inject drugs was later pronounced dead at the hospital, after one of Braga’s employees became suspicions and discovered that he had passed out.
Braga said users are difficult to detect. “There’s no face to it,” he said, noting that people from all walks of life now receive methadone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse last May said its most recent data from 2018 showed that 128 people in the United States die each day from an opioid overdose.
The Fall River Fire Department says from January through May of this year it has responded to 247 drug overdose calls in the city with 32 deaths resulting.
The department says 27 percent of those overdoses were in a non-residential setting such as a business or motor vehicle.
In 2019, according to the fire department, paramedics responded to a total of 907 confirmed overdoses with 72 deaths resulting.
Braga’s brother Carlos, 60, is franchise owner of the Dunkin’ at 540 Brayton Ave.
The older brother says he has opted to keep his front door locked and concentrate solely on his drive-thru lane.
“It’s one less thing you have to worry about,” he said.
Frank Braga says the consensus among his 27 employees regarding his new no-bathroom policy has been positive.
And even when he is able to reopen his dining area Braga said he’ll be in no hurry to do so, since business has been steady with takeout and drive-thru orders.
Braga said customers seem to understand and appreciate why he’s resorted to locking the bathrooms.
He notes one notable exception on a recent Saturday when a man and woman came in and began to argue with an employee.
After the disgruntled couple had exited he said a customer at the counter, who Braga says happened to be a paramedic, told him he recognized the woman.
“He said he had just picked her up last night,” to bring her to the hospital after she had overdosed, Braga said.
He also notes that he invested a sum of money late last year as part of the Dunkin’ Brands company’s NextGen remodeling campaign, which included the installation of new high-volume equipment and a redesigned counter area.
The Braga brothers were born in the Portuguese Azores and eventually moved to and spent their formative years in East Providence.
Carlos Braga says in 1989 he bought the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise downtown at 138 South Main St. and five years ago sold it to his brother.
Frank Braga says since July 1 he no longer has owned that franchise location, which sits next to the Fall River Justice Center with its superior and district courts.
He said he closed it on March 23, after Gov. Baker ordered restaurants to close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and ultimately decided not to reopen.
“Businesses had moved out of downtown, and there’s no parking. And customers we got from the courts could be a problem,” Braga said.
The governor’s order in March to close, he said, “was like a blessing in disguise.”