Restaurants pass the health test

Restaurants throughout Monroe County have received generally positive health code assessments, according to local health officials.

While Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner and Director of Environmental Health Brian Eckert said they don’t keep broad data covering how many violations have occurred locally, Wagner did say there have not been any particularly egregious cases recently.

Wagner explained that violations include less-urgent minor violations and critical violations, which can vary greatly in their severity and demand a range of responses from the health department.

“Violations can be minor violations, which would be maybe some cleaning issues or something that’s not really going to impact the food safety but needs to be dealt with,” Wagner said. “Then we have critical violations, which have to trigger a re-inspection.”

Those critical violations – which Wagner said tend to occur with actual food production – often mean a follow-up inspection to allow the restaurant to address the problem.

In certain cases such as when food is not properly cooled, the inspector might demand the problem be addressed immediately. They might also shut down the establishment, though Wagner said things typically don’t go that far.

“We also have the authority to shut somebody down if we were to go in and find something that was an imminent health threat to the people being served, but I’ve been here 25 years and we’ve never immediately closed a place down,” Wagner said.

Wagner further explained that restaurants are inspected more frequently based on how they prepare their food.

High-risk establishments that cook food and also cool it for later consumption are inspected two to three times a year. Medium-risk establishments that simply cook food for immediate use – like fast food restaurants – and low-risk establishments that don’t actually cook food – like gas stations – are only inspected once per year.

Wagner said Monroe County restaurants are generally good when it comes to meeting health code regulations. He attributes this to the close-knit nature of the communities that these restaurants are in.

“Being small-town, word of mouth is such an impact on these restaurants in Monroe County that they’re very cautious because they know that if they have a food-borne illness tracked back to them or something, it pretty much drastically affects their business,” Wagner said.

He compared this sort of reputation impact to restaurants in St. Louis, who frequently get new clientele.

Wagner also commented on the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and safety in local restaurants. 

He said that while quality and customer service may have been impacted due to pandemic employee turnover, restaurants have still managed to properly meet the health code.

“We’re not seeing a whole lot of new violations or additional violations to what we would see in a normal year prior to COVID versus now, but what we are seeing is the employee turnover,” Wagner said.

According to Wagner, that turnover continues to be one of the most impactful effects of the pandemic for local restaurants.

“It’s always an industry that has high turnover and people jumping jobs from place to place,” Wagner said. “But it seems to be exaggerated a little bit more right now.”

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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web