Health Inspectors Are Enforcing Coronavirus Rules, Can Close Jefferson County Restaurants And Bars That Do Not Comply

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Tom Gordon, BirminghamWatch

A sign puts a table off-limits in and effort to comply with social distancing rules.

The Jefferson County Health Department is using food inspectors to monitor restaurant and bars’ adherence to COVID-19 orders, and they can immediately close establishments that do not comply.

“We intend to check every place that serves food,” said Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson. “COVID-19 is not part of food regulations, but we can still take action if we deem a bar or food establishment is a threat to public health.”

The inspectors can issue an emergency closure order if they see a restaurant or bar violates either county or state emergency orders concerning COVID-19. “We intend to use it, if we need to,” Wilson said.

The inspectors are acting under the state’s Safer at Home order, which expires July 31; and Wilson’s June 30 county order, which does not have an expiration date.

Wilson said the inspectors will work with establishment owners or managers to put together a plan that would bring the restaurant or bar in compliance with county and state orders. If the owners or managers do not comply or agree to cooperate, the establishments will be shut down, he said.

The inspectors can immediately shut down a bar or restaurant if they see gross non-compliance with health orders.

“We want people to know that we are serious about compliance,” Wilson said. “Our inspectors have to directly observe a failure to comply. We are our own witnesses, and we do not have to ask a judge for an emergency closure order.”

COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County have risen dramatically in the past few weeks. The county now has the highest number of cases and deaths in the state. Jefferson County had four deaths from the virus Monday, bringing the death total to 174. There are 7,186 confirmed cases in the county.

Food inspectors are now working nights, weekends and at odd hours to check restaurants and bars.

The state order requires restaurants and bars to limit the patron party size at tables to eight and maintain at least six feet of separation between people seated at different tables, booths, chairs or stools. Games, such as pool and darts, can be played if the six feet of distance is kept and game equipment is sanitized between uses.

Each employee must wear a mask at all times, and self-service by guests is prohibited.

“If customers are eating or drinking, the mask can be removed,” said Jonathan Stanton, director of Environmental Health at the county health department, which includes food inspectors. “But all people entering bars or restaurants must wear masks.”

“Inspectors will first work with business managers to try to resolve any problem,” Stanton said. “We encourage all restaurants to come up with a plan to protect patrons and follow all orders that we have. We are trying to protect everybody that we can.

“We work with each individual business to keep everybody safe. Then if we have someone who does violate the order, we make sure they continue to work with us,” he added.

Stanton said restaurants create their own safety plans, but what they can and cannot do depends on space. “Most businesses have really worked with us, and they understand how this affects their business operation,” he added.

The number of food inspectors varies from 30 to 60 depending on circumstances. “We try to get out there when we hear complaints,” Stanton said.

Complaints can be called into the Jefferson County Health Department at (205) 930-1260 or (205) 933-9110. Complaints also can be lodged by email at the department’s contact us page.

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