Restaurant inspectors prime for Phase 1 with more responsibilities
The state will relaunch restaurant inspections on June 1 with a focus on education over enforcement and additional responsibilities for checking compliance with social-distancing restrictions, but with the same number of inspectors it’s been using.
With 20 to 25 inspectors operating from offices in each county, the state will likely be able to inspect between 60 and 100 locations per day, and hopes to be able to identify trends before Gov. John Carney needs to make decisions about moving to Phase 2 and lifting restrictions, said Jamie Mack, section chief for the Health Systems Protection unit of the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH).
“We’re not turning away from food safety, but our first priority will be COVID-19 compliance,” Mack said. “My philosophy has always been education before enforcement. If we see issues, we’ll help them resolve them and explain why they’re important, but if they don’t demonstrate they’re taking the restrictions seriously, we’ll have to take action.”
Beginning Monday, June 1, restaurants will be able to offer dine-in service for the first time in months, but only at 30% of their fire code capacity. The service will be by reservation only and require tables to be spaced 6 feet apart. Customers and staff will have to wear face masks unless seated at a table, and all menus and condiments will be disposable, single-use versions. It is a dramatic change from the normalcy that most diners are used to, but industry leaders are welcoming the first step.
Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA) President and CEO Carrie Leishman says June 1 represents “some oxygen and feelings of relief” for her members, who represent a blend of successful and large restaurant groups. Still, a DRA survey of state restaurants indicates that about 60% absolutely plan to open on or just after June 1 and 20% are not sure yet, which may validate early estimates that 20% of the state’s restaurants may close permanently amid the pandemic’s impact.
“We’re seeing early signs from reservations that customers are excited,” Leishman said. “But we are dealing with the double whammy of a capacity limit as well as table spacing. There are certainly challenges to work through – and many of us are feeling like we’re about to be operating as start-up ventures – but restaurateurs want to get open and quickly regain the confidence of consumers. We’re transitioning to the challenges of limited capacity to ensuring that when people dine out, they can do so safely … and we’ve never stopped working on that.”
Delaware has about 4,000 businesses that are registered as a food establishment, and Mack said that his team will be looking at a cross-section of restaurants so that they can understand where they need to focus future inspections. That could include small independent operators, a specific restaurant chain, or larger, more popular restaurants.
Mack said he did not request employees from other state departments to supplement his inspection team, in part because all departments are busy and in part because of the technical nature of the kitchen inspections.
“It can take 10 months to learn how to do a food-safety inspection,” he said. “It would be difficult to throw someone into that environment without that training. We’ve provided information to the restaurants and the inspectors about the restrictions. The inspectors each have their own little habits and procedures so we’re leaving a lot of this in their hands.”
Mack sandwiched his interview with Delaware Business Times between two webinars supporting the Delaware Division of Small Business’s COVID-19 Customer Protection Standards initiative as both a technical expert and to provide day-to-day support as they reopen.
Businesses following the program checklist can get a free window cling to put at their front entrance to reinforce customer trust that they’re adhering to state guidelines. Mack said the state has reached out to people in its inspection database and responded to daily questions from restaurant owners. And the DHA has created a “reopening toolkit” to help its members.
“It’s been a herculean effort [for the DRA] to communicate the governor’s Phase 1 guidelines for reopening to our members,” Leishman said. “The challenge is that there are 2,000 food service operators in the state that we don’t normally communicate with and that DPH is not communicating with. We can’t communicate with everyone; that’s the state’s job. What concerns me is that DPH is looking at checking compliance instead of checking food safety and I think the public is more concerned about food safety.”
“We’ve done some inspections of big boxes, including a few stores in Sussex,” Mack said. “We’re taking complaints and then reaching out. We’ve been talking to places like Wawa and Shoprite and that’s overall been a pretty good experience.”
“We’re getting back to a sense of normalcy and we’re hoping to be able to lift more restrictions,” Mack said.
By Peter Osborne