The previous yr has seen loads of dialogue in regards to the position that the St. Joseph County Well being Division performs in making certain public well being throughout a pandemic.
However there’s been little discuss about restaurant inspections, one other of its obligations — and one the place the division has fallen nicely brief. The Board of Public Well being, which oversees the division, has additionally uncared for to take forceful steps.
A recent Tribune report by Christian Sheckler detailed a shift in how the division handles restaurant violations, shifting towards non-public conferences and away from public hearings. In recent times, the variety of eating places being closed for unsanitary circumstances or ordered to reply publicly for the issues has plummeted.
From 2014 via 2016, the division closed and held hearings for a median of 16 eating places per yr. The quantity then began dropping, all the way down to zero final yr.
The division started permitting eating places with repeat violations to go on probation, with no listening to or a short lived closure.
The division’s response to repeated violations at Fiesta Cancun gives a vivid illustration of how a lot the division has backed off its earlier practices.
In late 2019, after an inspector discovered 13 violations, the South Bend restaurant was warned to repair the issues. Two months later, in February 2020, an inspector once more discovered 13 violations, 5 of them deemed “important” violations.
Slightly than closing the restaurant — as it might have in earlier years — the division put Fiesta Cancun on probation, subjecting it to extra frequent inspections. However just a few months later, inspections discovered 13 extra violations, together with 5 important ones and two repeats. Nonetheless, no closure, no hearings.
As a substitute, well being officers scheduled a personal assembly with Fiesta Cancun administration to “focus on finest practices.”
Dr. Bob Einterz, the county well being officer, says the division tries to “use discretion between making certain the well being of the general public and never damaging the popularity of a enterprise proprietor.”
However how does conserving severe issues secret guarantee the general public well being? We’re not speaking about minor points; these are important violations.
Should not folks be armed with such data earlier than selecting up a menu?
Earlier this month, the division lastly acted, quickly closing Fiesta Cancun after two reviews of potential meals poisoning and one other collection of violations. An inspector discovered, amongst different points, an worker touching clear dishes with out washing their fingers, meals being saved at temperatures that had been too excessive, dishes saved on cabinets with dirty cardboard lining and containers of staff’ private treatment close to clear utensils.
The restaurant had reopened final weekend, after passing its follow-up inspection “with flying colours,” based on Einterz. The restaurant was assessed a $200 positive and positioned on probation for six months.
However it’s not simply Fiesta Cancun. The Tribune discovered different circumstances of eating places with a number of violations over a number of months the place the well being division did not maintain a public listening to or did not power a short lived closure.
A well being division official instructed The Tribune that “not all offenses benefit a listening to” and that many violations is probably not “points which might be a risk to public well being.”
However that does not clarify the division’s failure to make eating places reply publicly for severe points. They’ve chosen to deal with important violations with non-public conversations — cases the place the general public has a proper to know.
So the place’s the Board of Public Well being, which oversees the division, on this concern? Heidi Beidinger Burnett, the board president, did not return messages searching for remark for Sheckler’s story. At a gathering on Wednesday, just one member introduced up the subject, and the board instantly moved on after Einterz and one other administrator defined their strategy.
Prospects have a proper to know if a restaurant’s practices are threatening meals security. The well being division’s first obligation is to guard the general public, not a enterprise’ popularity.
And the Board of Public Well being has an obligation to concentrate, step in and push the directors to rethink their practices. In any other case, the general public is left at midnight and may solely marvel what number of buyer complaints, and what number of violations, are sufficient to make sure meals security within the county.