5 On Your Side

5 On Your Side: How restaurant inspections changed with COVID-19

Posted October 8, 2020 5:45 p.m. EDT
Updated October 8, 2020 6:25 p.m. EDT

— Many people are venturing back into restaurants, but are they safe to visit during the pandemic?

Staff at so-ca in Raleigh’s Cameron Village take COVID-19 seriously, reflected by a perfect 100% score on their latest inspection.

"We’re all very proud of that," said Executive Chef Eli Rodriguez. "We’ve all worked very, very hard for that."

Rodriguez said his team knows the risks. So-ca was the first local restaurant impacted in late February, when a customer came in unknowingly with COVID-19.

When the restaurant re-opened, so-ca added safety measures that go beyond county inspection standards.

"We do a daily screening for our staff, so we take temperatures. We ask them if they’ve been in contact with anybody that has symptoms of COVID-19," said Rodriguez. "Our menus are disposable."

Masks and sanitizer are a must, but Rodriguez said his staff prefer to wash their hands as much as possible.

As for pens and payment devices, staff wipe them down every time somebody uses them.

Sanitation is more important than ever, especially in dining room areas, said Ashley Whittington with the Wake County Environmental Inspection office.

Whittington said the office gets a lot of complaint calls about restaurant staff and customers not wearing masks.

"To that we say, that is a law enforcement issue, not a local health department issue," he said. "We currently do not have the ability to enforce governor’s orders on that level."

Inspectors do enforce cleaning and food temperature safety. With so many industry changes, they’re looking for new risks.

"A risk associated with delivery service might be temperature control of the food during transport," said Whittington. "There are risks associated with decreased numbers of employees that we’re seeing in restaurants now as well. There may be things such as cleaning and sanitizing that is not as easy to do with a limited number of staff."

And know, if there is a case of COVID-19 in a restaurant, Whittington said owners are not required to get clearance from the health department to reopen, admitting that "may surprise people."

Before you patronize a restaurant, look for best practices: mask requirements, social distancing efforts and constant cleaning and sanitizing in addition to a solid inspection score.

You can also look for the Count on Me NC logo, which indicates staff participated in extra COVID-19 safety training developed by public health officials.

While it doesn’t guarantee safety, at a minimum, it shows the restaurant has at least some level of concern for extra precaution.

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