It’s the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) that is handling pandemic-related issues in food-service establishments.
SANTA ROSA BEACH — “12 servers. 15 kitchen staff. 3 hostesses. Not wearing masks. No social distancing.”
Those words, written on lined yellow paper and attached to an email, are the notes from a telephone call placed to the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 hotline — 866-779-6121 or email COVIDemail@example.com — regarding a local restaurant that an employee claimed was forcing staff members to work, even if they had tested positive for COVID-19.
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Those sorts of reports — in calls and emails to the Daily News, posts on Facebook, and contacts with local and state government offices — are typical of the way that concerns are being aired about how local restaurants are handling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
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In just the past few days, for example, the Daily News has received emails or phone calls about the aforementioned Santa Rosa Beach restaurant, a Destin restaurant where COVID-19-positive workers were sent home, but other workers reportedly weren’t told about the positive tests, and a Mossy Head fast-food restaurant where some employees had reportedly tested positive for the virus.
The names of those businesses aren’t being published because the Daily News could not independently verify the claims, and there are no official reports on any of the businesses.
However, part of the reason for those calls and emails likely is that people don’t know specifically where to turn to get action on COVID-19-related issues at restaurants.
The local or state offices of the Florida Department of Health are a likely first stop, as was the case with the employee of the Santa Rosa Beach restaurant.
Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Walton County, said the office had received at least one call regarding COVID-19 issues at a local business, but the agency has no enforcement powers in connection with those issues.
Local health departments do, however, perform contact tracing as a means of helping control the spread of COVID-19 — although funding and other resources have been limited — that could lead to local businesses as a potential location for COVID-19 cases.
It is, though, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) — to which a conscientious FDOH hotline worker forwarded the employee complaint — that is handling pandemic-related issues in food-service establishments. A July 28 DBPR inspection report on the restaurant, based on a complaint, did not note any COVID-19-related issues, but it did note that required food safety training had expired for some employees.
The DBPR regulates a host of businesses and professions in Florida, from cosmetologists to veterinarians to real estate agents to restaurants, and its restaurant inspection program is now both capturing COVID-19-related violations in those establishments, and promulgating rules and making best-practice recommendations to them as well, according to Patrick Fargason, acting director of communications at the department.
The DBPR website includes a universal complaint form, located at http://bpr.state.fl.us/apps/complaint_forms/pmw_form.asp, for anyone wanting to file a complaint against a regulated business.
“Complaints are reviewed on a case-by-case basis by DHR (the DBPR’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants) and forwarded to their district office within the local area,’’ explained Chris Kingry, a DBPR communications coordinator. ”A complaint inspection is then performed to determine their threat to public health and safety and the district field office will set a timeline for inspection depending on the allegations.“
In addition to the complaint form, the DBPR maintains a searchable list of inspection reports online at www.myfloridalicense.com/wl11.asp?mode=0&SID=&brd=H that can provide information about COVID-19-related violations at restaurants, although the DBPR notes that the inspection reports are only “a ’snapshot’ of conditions present at the time of the inspection.”
More broadly, Kingry said, DBPR uses the inspection process, along with communications with restaurants on a local and state level by DBPR staff trained in food safety principles, to provide general guidance on COVID-19-related issues such as personal protective equipment, social distancing and employee screening.
As was the case prior to the emergence of COVID-19 concerns, DBPR restaurant inspections are unannounced, Kingry said. The frequency with which an individual restaurant can expect to be inspected, Kingry added, is based on the agency’s risk-based frequency program, which assigns a numerical risk level of between 1 and 4 to individual establishments based on their inspection and compliance history, the type of food served, food preparation techniques and the type of service offered.
The DBPR was handed its COVID-19-related responsibilities in a March 17 executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis. In Executive Order 20-68, DeSantis mandated the DBPR to “ensure all restaurants implement employee screening and prohibit any employee from entering the restaurant premises” if they meet certain criteria indicating that they either have or may have contracted COVID-19.
Among the criteria are someone infected with COVID-19 who hasn’t had two consecutive negative tests 24 hours apart; has been in contact with someone with COVID-19 and not tested negative in the previous 14 days, is showing signs of respiratory illness or discloses they have symptoms.
Two months after the executive order outlining DBPR’s responsibilities for dealing with COVID-19 issues in restaurants, DBPR established a set of mandatory COVID-19-related practices for restaurants
Under those requirements, restaurant employees “who appear to have symptoms upon arrival at work or who become sick during the day must immediately be separated from other employees, customers, and visitors, and sent home.”
In terms of “best practices,” the DBPR recommends, but does not require, among other things, that restaurants provide hand sanitizer or similar disinfectant for customers, that physical guides, such as tape on floors or sidewalks, be used to promote social distancing, and that reservations or call-ahead seating be promoted as as means of managing the spacing of restaurant seating.
In recent days, at least one area restaurant ran afoul of regulations regarding staff members, according to DBPR inspection reports.
In a July 23 inspection report from The Breakfast Table in Destin, a DBPR inspector wrote that “(u)pon arrival all 3 employees on duty at time of inspection have been exposed to a person who has tested and been confirmed to be infected with Covid 19.”
The person with COVID-19 may or may not have had any connection with the restaurant — the DBPR report is not specific on that point — and the employees may or may not have the illness, a point also not noted in the report.
The inspector directed that the employees be quarantined for 14 days from July 17, or get a negative COVID-19 test result, before returning to work.
The report indicated a need for DBPR follow-up with the restaurant. The DBPR website did not show any follow-up as of Friday, and calls to the restaurant by the Daily News had not been returned as of deadline for this story.
The issue is classified by the DBPR as an “intermediate” violation. That’s the middle tier of DBPR’s violation severity classifications, and according to the DBPR website, indicates violations that “if not addressed, could lead to risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness or injury.”
The DBPR tiers also include basic violations, described simply as departures from “best practices” in a regulated business, and “high-priority” violations, which with regard to restaurants “could contribute directly to a foodborne illness or injury.”
On the day after the Destin restaurant inspection, the DBPR was at a Fort Walton Beach restaurant — the long-standing Kinfolks BBQ on Racetrack Road — for a routine inspection not prompted by any specific complaint. Nonetheless, an inspector found a relatively minor COVID-19-related violation in which social-distancing standards for restaurants’ indoor capacity were violated.
According to the DBPR report, an inspector “observed 3 tables in close proximity to each other, two in the same line with proper distance and one in the next line catty-corner to the other two. Owner stated that she was told that seating had gone up to 75% capacity (50% capacity remains the state-set limit).” The table-spacing issue was corrected while the inspector was in the restaurant, according to the DBPR inspection report.
According to Angie Childers, owner of Kinfolks BBQ, DBPR inspectors “are really on top of their game” in terms of ferreting out COVID-19-related infractions. During last week’s inspection, she said, chairs were removed from every other table in the restaurant to immediately meet the capacity limitations.
Beyond that, Childers said she’s relying on her six employees to keep COVID-19 out of the restaurant, which is doing most of its business by take-out these days anyway.
She keeps a thermometer on hand in the restaurant just in case an employee starts feeling ill at work, she said, but the general rule for the staff is to stay home if they feel sick. And, Childers said, she trusts her staff to be honest about their health and any changes in it.
“The girls that I have here, they’re going to let me know,” she said.
Elsewhere in the area, Big Bad Breakfast in Inlet Beach is among the considerable number of area restaurants whose DBPR inspections are clear of any COVID-19-related inspection issues.
Employee temperature checks, socially distanced tables and other precautions now are just part of a routine that the restaurant is managing well, according to Abby Tatum, a manager working Friday morning as the lunch hour approached.
“I don’t think (the COVID-19 precautions) makes it more difficult,” Tatum said.