restaurant kitchen

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture regularly inspects restaurants to ensure kitchens are preparing food in sanitary conditions. Inspectors also check for compliance with state COVID-19 prevention regulations.

THE ISSUE

In the Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline “Watchdog” column, reporter Chad Umble examined the sources of complaints about local restaurants’ noncompliance with COVID-19 prevention measures imposed by the state. Wrote Umble: “During more than a year of state-imposed restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, restaurants have been a focus of many of the mitigation efforts, with the Agriculture Department’s restaurant inspectors on the front lines. While inspectors may be enforcing the rules, they haven’t actually been the main ones monitoring for compliance — that’s been done by private citizens.” In Lancaster County, Lancaster city is the only municipality that conducts its own restaurant inspections.

What does it say about Lancaster County residents that there have been more complaint-driven inspections in our county during the pandemic than in any other county inspected by the state?

We have some thoughts on that score, but first, please consider what Umble reported.

“Over the past year, members of the public have filed thousands of complaints about restaurants violating COVID-19 mitigation requirements, triggering most of the Agriculture Department’s enforcement actions, which have included the issuing of 170 ‘closed by order’ notices,” Umble wrote.

“Between March 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021, the department registered 5,686 complaints statewide for violations of COVID-19 mitigation requirements, including 727 from Lancaster County. The total number of complaints is actually higher, since multiple complaints against a specific business over a limited time period are recorded as just one complaint.”

Umble continued: “Complaints about COVID-19 violations peaked during the three-week ban on indoor dining, which ended Jan. 4, but Agriculture Department spokeswoman Shannon Powers says they are still getting around 200 citizen complaints a week.”

This has been a tough year for restaurant owners, as they’ve dealt with pandemic restrictions, diminished profits, changing state guidelines and staff shortages. Through it all, many owners still have had to cover their rents or mortgages, as well as their own families’ bills. We feel for them.

We imagine that owners of restaurants that have been the target of complaints are not particularly pleased by the vigilance of Lancaster County residents. But we understand and respect this watchfulness.

Powers told Umble that many of the complaints related to COVID-19 have been “filed by employees who are concerned for their own personal safety.”

They have every right — and reason — to be concerned. They are working in an environment in which proper sanitizing, mask-wearing and social distancing are essential if the risk of viral transmission is to be reduced.

As we wrote last month, “The plain fact is that restaurant and bar settings are higher risk in terms of COVID-19 transmission. ... Going to a restaurant or bar to dine and imbibe simply isn’t the same as shopping for groceries. In a supermarket or big-box warehouse, there’s no need to remove one’s mask. ... We choose our groceries, pay for them and then exit.

“We linger in restaurants and bars. We need to remove our masks to eat and drink. We chat and laugh.”

We cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, which states, “The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. ... The risk of COVID-19 spread increases in a restaurant or bar setting as interactions within 6 feet of others increase.”

Waiters and other front-of-the-house restaurant staff are typically in those settings for long shifts. No wonder some are keeping a close eye on whether COVID-19 safety protocols are being followed.

And no wonder some are reluctant to return to work.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Tim Mekeel reported Sunday, 634 Lancaster County residents who were laid off from restaurants and bars filed claims with the state Department of Labor & Industry during the week that ended March 27, saying they want to keep drawing unemployment compensation.

Research by the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board and the PA Center for Workforce Information and Analysis concluded that some restaurant workers are finding it more lucrative to stay home, given a new federal benefit of $300 per week, which was part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

The “less the job pays, the bigger the gap between on-the-job earnings and stay-at-home benefits,” Mekeel reported.

That $300-a-week benefit will end in September. In the meantime, restaurants may need to vie for workers by offering competitive wages — easier said than done, we know, but bussing and washing dishes may have lost some appeal in this pandemic.

Establishing a reputation as a safe place to work also should help. A restaurant that strictly follows COVID-19 prevention measures conveys the message that it fiercely guards the health of its employees and customers.

The state Agriculture Department data on restaurant complaints indicates that Lancaster County residents see value in the rules that aim to protect us from infection during a lethal pandemic. Because we’re sensible. And we care about one another’s well-being, including that of the people cooking and serving food at restaurants. And we want everyone to be safe and healthy.

So we’d advise against a business plan that caters to, say, anti-maskers.

Restaurant patrons here clearly want to see adherence to COVID-19 precautions.

This was corrected at 12:50 p.m. April 7 to correct the second reference to the federal weekly jobless benefit.

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