Why restaurant workers wearing masks is not part of county health inspections

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Whether you take out or hope to dine in restaurants when they are allowed to open their doors to customers, health inspections continue to keep you and the food your order safe.

Ashley Whittington, a Food Lodging Institution Section Manager with Wake County Environmental Services, said inspectors continue to go out and inspect restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are wearing PPE and our staff is wearing surgical masks, and we do ask the operators from socially distance from our staff when we enter the facility," Whittington said. "Our hope was to prevent any foodborne outbreak or injuries that would further tax the medical system and medical providers."

However, Whittington said Wake County has stopped routine inspections at other facilities with highly susceptible populations.

"Those are the facilities where there are many elderly, young, immune-compromised such as nursing homes, child care facilities," Whittington said. "We are currently visiting those in response to complaints and hazards we have been made aware of. That is simply to limit exposure to outside sources of COVID."

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Whittington said inspections are weighted mostly on food handling procedures and practices. Cleaning and disinfecting are part of the inspection process, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations like employees wearing masks and social distancing are not part of the inspection or rating.

"We do have customers that contact us and let us know certain facilities are not wearing masks, and that is up to the facility on how they follow the governor's ordinances," Whittington said. "Anything that was related to governor's ordinances or recommendations we do not enforce. That's not part of our regulations."

Instead, Whittington recommends if citizens want to report businesses for not following Governor's orders, they will need to call the law enforcement agency in the municipality where the violation was observed. However, remember wearing masks is not required in many counties here in North Carolina.

Many restaurants are doing more on their own when it comes to COVID-19 safety. The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA) has joined forces with industry leaders, academic partners, and state officials to safely reopening restaurants and other businesses. It's called Count On Me NC, and the program provides specific guidance to restaurants, hotels, and other businesses on best practices to protect guests for the phased reopening after Gov. Cooper's COVID-19 stay-at-home order.

Wit Tuttell, director of Visit NC, said, "To get people comfortable to go back, to give them something that says we are doing our things, we can show you we are a business trying to do it the right way, and we hope visitors will do it the right way as well."
Count On Me NC offers free online training for businesses on how to re-open safely. Dr. Ben Chapman, professor, and food safety specialist at NC State University and part of Count On Me NC, said the training combines CDC recommendations for COVID-19 cleaning and procedures with NC-specific guidance.

"Creating ways for businesses to create space and provide areas where individuals do not have to be right next to each other," Chapman said. He added the training also addresses cloth face coverings, hand washing and hand sanitizing--both for employees and customers.

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The training also includes making sure employees are healthy enough to come to work. "Looking at evaluating and screening employees. We know that when it comes to COVID-19, management being around individuals is really the highest risk of transmission, so making sure we are keeping employees and staff who are displaying any symptoms out of the setting," Chapman said.

Several restaurant employees already completed the training in anticipation of when they can welcome customers back, and if you're a customer, be prepared for it to be a different dining experience.

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Lynn Minges, NCRLA's president, and CEO, said, "Tables and booths will be blocked off or moved so restaurants will not be as brisk and as busy as we are used to seeing them. We will see employees with face covering; we will see hand sanitizer for employees and guests."
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