PEORIA — Routine health department inspections paused during the COVID-19 shutdown are once again happening in the Peoria area, but in innovative ways.
In some cases, video conferencing has completely replaced in-person inspections, and COVID-19 education has become a big part of all inspections, with health inspectors guiding restaurant owners on pandemic health protocols.
“We’re doing as much COVID education as we are doing food education,” said Nick Maggioncalda, food program manager with the Tazewell County Health Department. “We have owners asking, ’What happens if somebody becomes positive? What do I do for testing? What do I do for cleaning?’”
After being paused by the Food and Drug Administration in March, in-person restaurant inspections are once again being conducted all over the country, but they have changed, according to the National Restaurant Association. Trained to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses, health inspectors are now also checking for compliance with guidelines designed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some jurisdictions are also responding to personal safety violations, like improper use of masks and failing to social distance.
COVID is not transmitted with food, said Maggioncalda, who is finding that a lot of restaurant employees are now spending more time on basic hygiene than they did before COVID-19 hit the scene.
“The more focus on personal hygiene, the less chance of someone becoming sick at a restaurant due to someone introducing something,” he said.
Peoria County has been getting calls from people reporting restaurants not taking the proper precautions against the spread of COVID-19, said Stephanie Streight, environmental health coordinator for Peoria City/County Health Department.
“I feel like people who are not sold on some of the COVID precautions tend to be a little bit louder, especially in the comment sections in social media, but based on the calls we get, people are definitely concerned,” she said. “The majority of the population in Peoria County want establishments to take these precautions.”
PCCHD is currently taking nominations for restaurants who are doing a good job with COVID-19 precautions. You can cast your vote on the PCCHD Facebook page and look up restaurant inspection reports at https://www.pcchd.org/151/Food-Establishment-Inspections.
Both the Peoria City/County Health Department and the Tazewell County Health Department have resumed all their regular inspection duties, but with many changes designed to protect both the inspector and the client. Inspectors now make appointments, wear masks and socially distance while conducting well and septic inspections. Peoria County has resumed lead inspections, and Tazewell County is once again doing body art inspections. For food inspections, both health departments are using video conferencing to do some of the things they once did in person.
“Virtual inspections are being done at school and day cares, long-term care facilities and human service facilities like the Dream Center, places where there’s a lot of congregation of vulnerable populations. We don’t want to bring exposure to residents, and we don’t want our staff exposed as well,” said Streight.
Those inspections begin with an online survey where basic administrative data is collected, said Carey Panier, PCCHD director of environmental health.
“Then we would schedule a time with them, they walk us around the establishment via Zoom or some type of video conferencing, and they use their phone or their computer and we ask them specific questions, have them show us, like, taking temperatures, checking their sanitizer and those types of things,” said Panier.
Long-term care facilities in particular were well prepared to do virtual inspections, said Maggioncalda.
“They are most prepared for virtual visits because their clients have been using Zoom since March for communication with their families,” he said. “So that is one population that was ready to go. They were very well prepared for Zoom.”
Restaurant inspections in both Peoria and Tazewell counties are still being done in person, but in a way that allows for greater social distancing.
“We use another type of inspections we called a hybrid inspection,” said Panier. “That first initial contact would be the survey where they would fill out the basic information online, so when we do actually go to the site, our time can be spent going through priority items and educating them. It limits our time in the establishment to limit exposure.”
Probably the biggest difference for restaurant owners is that these types of inspections are now scheduled.
“When we did unannounced inspections, they could be, literally, any time they are preparing food,” said Maggioncalda. “Now we schedule a time when they have more time to talk to us and there’s limited staff in the building, so we are not on top of each other and we can maintain social distancing. The person in charge is physically doing the work — we are not touching things when we go in. They have to have their own thermometers properly calibrated for taking temperatures. They have to have the chemical test strips. They are opening doors, looking at things for us. We are there, but really we are asking that person in charge to take the lead.”
Though the role of inspectors is sometimes punitive, their main goal is to educate restaurant owners on how to keep their facilities healthy. This new way of doing inspections is more focused on education, said Maggioncalda.
“The comments I get from a lot of people in charge is that they appreciate us doing it that way because they learn a lot,” he said. “We are literally making them do the inspection along with us instead of just having them follow along and watch. They are actively participating. They are actually getting a little bit more out of it.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.