July 31, 2020

Health inspections may look different in the wake of COVID-19


COVID-19 has become a game changer for restaurants and food safety inspectors.

As soon as the pandemic started, everyone began focusing on the effect that mandated shutdowns were having on restaurants — dining rooms closed, and operators had to lay off many of their employees. 

To be sure, restaurant health inspections were not top of mind. In March, the FDA temporarily postponed in-person health inspections, but now, five months later, they’re coming back, but the requirements are a little different.

Trained to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses, health inspectors are also checking that restaurants are complying with the guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Depending on the jurisdiction, they are responding to personal safety violations, such as improper use of masks, or no use at all, and failing to social distance.

Health inspection pro tips

Peter Oshiro, environmental health program manager for Hawaii’s Department of Health, says the addition of the COVID checks is definitely more time-consuming. Hawaii, which restarted its in-person inspections on June 8, said the addition of COVID checks has caused some confusion for operators, who are not only concerned about compliance, but also how to protect employees and customers from contracting the virus.

"It’s difficult for everyone to figure out different ways to do things,” he says. “In addition to checking on COVID-19 safety protocols, they still need to check food temperatures, follow dish washing procedures, and make sure sanitizer concentrations are right. We observe employees to gauge if they’ve been properly trained in personal hygiene and cross contamination prevention."

According to Oshiro, inspectors in Hawaii are checking that restaurants screen staff members for illness before they start their shifts, keep their tables six feet apart or are separating them with physical barriers, and that they’re properly sanitizing and disinfecting tables, chairs and everything on the tables.

Initially, there won’t be heavy regulatory actions, he says. Instead, his team will I.D. the restaurants not in compliance and talk to their managers about how to get them up to speed.

Mark Nealon, founder and president of SAFE Restaurants, a consultancy helping restaurants navigate food-safety inspections in New York City, says the new, extra COVID-19 mandates could result in health inspections becoming more complicated. Nealon offers these five tips to help operators through the inspection process.

1. Have all paperwork the inspector needs at the ready. This includes up-to-date permits, licenses and certificates, including for alcohol service and sales tax. Also make sure that extermination reports and content information is available, if needed. Providing the documentation will not only streamline, but also speed up the entire process.

2. Don’t commit obvious, common violations. Don’t run out of masks if your local jurisdiction requires your employees to wear them. Nealon advises restaurateurs ask themselves this question: “If workers aren't wearing the required PPE when the inspector arrives, will he or she be confident that the operator is adhering to other requirements and recommendations such as social distancing or frequent cleaning?”

3. Follow social distancing guidelines. Oshiro agrees, “Managing your occupancy; helping customers keep the six-foot distancing through signage and markings on the ground is key.”

4. Take temperatures. If you’re required to take the temperatures of staff members at your restaurant, do so. And don’t hesitate to take the temperature of the inspector who is walking through the door.

5. Remember the operation’s food safety and sanitation is still most important. Stay on top of all the regular procedures, including maintaining proper food and equipment temperatures, handling food safely, and pest control. Store food properly, wash hands often, and wash, rinse and sanitize surfaces and utensils, as always.

Oshiro adds that if restaurants practice active managerial control and ensure that all employees are healthy, that will help reduce the time inspectors spend inside the facility, keeping exposure to each other at a minimum.

Accommodating inspectors

Restaurant food-safety consultant Catherine Adams Hutt of RdR Solutions, Aubrey, Texas, gives the following advice for restaurateurs going through their health inspections during the pandemic:

  • Educate your employees on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and why each step, like practicing social distancing and wearing a mask is important.
  • Consistently enforce the use of face coverings and other COVID-19 related employee policies, and as always, remind employees to wash hands frequently.
  • Provide a single point of contact for the inspector, or at least limit the number of employees the inspector is in contact with.
  • Provide sanitized disposable wipes for the inspector and anyone working with him or her to use while in the restaurant

“People are concerned about COVID, and under a great deal of stress,” she says, “so it’s important go forward in reasonable ways. We can’t stop doing business, and inspections also have to happen. But they’ll include more precautions to protect everyone.”