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Inspectors eye tougher stance with restaurants

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The state is encouraging “reasonable accommodations” like pick-up restaurant orders and online ordering as Delaware heads into its third month under Phase 2 restrictions. | C/O Erik Mclean

As the state heads into its third month under Phase 2 restrictions, Delaware restaurant inspectors are ready to take a harder approach to establishments that are not complying with COVID-19 precautions.

From June 15 to last week, inspectors from the Division of Public Health (DPH) made roughly 850 compliance checks. Only two establishments were fined: a bar in Woodside for $1,000 for continued non-compliance and a Wilmington athletic event at the 76ers Fieldhouse for $5,000 for multiple violations.

Not many fines were issued because of the health inspector’s education-first policy and many already met the state’s restrictions when the inspectors arrived, said Jamie Mack, chief of Health Systems Protection at DPH.

Education can range from a conversation to establish what expectations are, pointing out what restaurants are doing well and other things that can be done better. Sometimes it also takes talking about strategies with management,” Mack said. “But by August, we’re starting to get less patient because we’ve been at this for a while. The idea is people should know what the expectations are by now.”

In August, state inspectors conducted 420 checks, or roughly half of all inspections through the pandemic. One of those site visits at a Newark restaurant prompted management to voluntarily close for one day to address multiple violations, including a lack of mask wearing and guests not seated 6 feet apart.

DPH inspectors are conducting about 100 site visits a week on average, and moving forward there won’t be second chances.

“Before, there might have been a second opportunity before the fine. But now we’re moving more toward warning and a fine if they don’t comply,” Mack said.

DPH also received about 1,500 complaints on COVID-19 compliance through its email tip service, but not all trigger a site visit. Half of the complaints resulted in a phone call to the business to make them aware of the requirements, according to Jen Brestel, spokeswoman for the Division of Public Health.

Chief among those complaints is customers or staff not wearing a mask. Many businesses are taking patron’s word for it that they are medically exempt from wearing one, Mack said.

Last week, Gov. John Carney issued an executive order that requires businesses to more strictly enforce face covering requirements among their employees and how to “safely work and communicate with people who cannot wear face coverings.”

Businesses are now required to provide face coverings for staff or accept a doctor’s note for accommodations otherwise. For customers, the order states “a reasonable accommodation does not include simply allowing [them] inside without a face covering.”

“At this point, we’re focusing more on education for businesses to help create reasonable accommodations, like encouraging guests to pick up their orders or to order online,” Mack said. “We understand the difficult position this puts some restaurants in. But on the other side, it also helps stop the spread and continue moving in a positive direction.”

In the future, inspectors will focus their attention in Newark and Dover the state’s two university communities although there were some left in the Delaware beaches for Labor Day. DPH strategy is a steady presence in Newark on weekends and nights to signal to restaurants its expectations.

“We’re cautiously optimistic at this point. What’s encouraging is that a vast majority of restaurants are doing their part, but what concerns me is that the public may be getting compliant and not wearing masks. We need to continue these efforts to maintain opening in a safe way,” Mack said.

 


By Katie Tabeling

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