This story was originally published on May 18, 2020 by THE CITY.
Health inspectors are two months into a hiatus on examining local restaurants still open for takeout during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now the hard-hit restaurant industry wants to meld overhauling the health-safety grading system into the larger discussion over revamping in-person dining in the era of social distancing.
“The fact is that the restaurant letter grade system is flawed and was not working before the pandemic,” said Andrew Rigie, head of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a restaurant umbrella group.
The de Blasio administration stopped all inspections on March 16 when it blocked customers from dining in eateries to limit gatherings of people and the spread of COVID-19.
Restaurants usually get at least one surprise health inspection annually. The approximately 100 inspectors have gone from cleanliness checks to a series of other behind-the-scenes jobs for the city Health Department — working in “logistical, IT, and communications positions,” said Michael Lanza, an agency spokesperson.
In the absence of inspections, 133 food poisoning complaints were filed from March 16 to May 14, compared to 466 during the same period last year, according to Lanza.
He said the drop in food poisoning complaints comes as “no surprise” because “only a subset of city restaurants (are) operating and with fewer diners.” The percentage of the city’s 24,000 restaurants that are open for delivery or takeout wasn’t clear.
Lanza defended the letter grading system, saying it relies on a risk-based approach “that reduces the frequency of inspections for restaurants that demonstrate good compliance with the Health Code’s food safety requirements.”
A fine line
Restaurant owners have long chafed at the Bloomberg-era letter grading system, arguing that inspectors have too much discretion and that some of the violations are arbitrary, like nicking a bartender for having a rag in their back pocket.
The industry wants changes — starting with reducing fines, which range from $200 to $2,000.
The city collected $1 million in fines from beleaguered restaurant owners in March and $224,015 in April, according to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. The fines were all levied before the pandemic.
Rigie wants the city to “add due process to the adjudication system” to give restaurant owners a better chance at beating violations. Owners currently have to make their case before administrative judges, an ordeal that can take months.
Restaurant owners also are calling on the city to eliminate violations for low-level, non-food-safety-related offenses.
Nationwide, research has shown that inspections promote compliance with food safety precautions.
Restaurants are also more likely to skimp on safety when they are busier — unlikely during the drop in business in the current climate, said Michael Toffel, a professor of environmental management at Harvard Business School.
Timing of each visit is also a major factor: Inspectors, on average, found fewer violations at each successive restaurant they checked during the day, according to a report Toffel co-authored.
In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio modified the letter-grade system to decrease fines by nearly 25 percent to fulfill a campaign promise he made to help small business owners who contended they were too often unfairly hit.
More than 90 percent of the city’s restaurants now have an A grade, according to the latest reports.
Help for owners
The NYC Hospitality Alliance, meanwhile, is pressing for the city to take more action to help struggling restaurant owners. The group wants city officials to designate sidewalk space and pedestrian plazas for eateries to allow customers to spread out.
“We need to reimagine how we are going to use public space,” Rigie said during a virtual news conference on Wednesday, shortly before the City Council passed three bills supporting the industry.
The measures included capping delivery app fees at 5 percent, or 15 percent when the app supplies a delivery staffer. The other bills call for waiving and refunding some sidewalk cafe fees, fining delivery apps for phone calls where no order occurs, and offering personal liability protections for leases of commercial tenants.
The de Blasio administration has not indicated where it stands on the legislation, which was included as part of the Council’s COVID-19 Relief Package.
“When you take away a restaurant from a community, you also tear down the fabric of that community,” said Melba Wilson, owner of Melba’s Restaurant and Melba’s Catering in Harlem, as she thanked the Council for their vote.
“You’re not just taking away a job from an employee,” she added. “You’re taking jobs away from farmers, from different vendors, from chefs, and from vineyards.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.