DHEC moves to virtual restaurant inspections during COVID-19 shutdown
The coronavirus pandemic has forced just about everyone to look for new ways to get things done while maintaining social distancing.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control is no different. DHEC has begun conducting “virtual” restaurant inspections.
State law mandates that restaurants and other establishments that serve food receive regular inspections to ensure that all necessary food safety and sanitary rules are followed.
Because most restaurants are either closed entirely or limited to takeout and drive-through service, the inspection process has slowed considerably, and the number of inspections have been reduced, according to an email from DHEC.
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The virtual process, in which restaurant managers walk inspectors through their facility while connected by video, is described by DHEC as an “innovative emergency procedure.”
While the virtual food safety inspections allow inspectors to ensure open facilities are focused on cleanliness and health, they do have limitations, said Laura Renwick, DHEC spokesperson via e-mail.
Inspectors are able to observe things like an operator doing temperature checks for food and refrigeration and warming units and also checks for sanitation solution concentrations, Renwick said, but the onus is still on each facility to monitor food safety risk factors as well.
Virtual inspections are focused on identifying "those critical risk factors that would contribute to a food borne illness," Renwick said.
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In comparing inspection reports done before and after dining rooms were closed, the virtual inspections are less detailed but still catch things like proper glove usage and cleanliness of food contact surfaces.
"Because our inspections are a snapshot in time evaluation, each facility is required to have a food protection manager who is certified in food safety and is trained to understand food safety risk factors," Renwick said. "It is the responsibility of the facility to ensure these risk factors are in compliance while the facility is operating."
Restaurants typically are inspected prior to opening, and routine inspections, in which establishments receive a letter grade denoting their sanitation score. If violations are noted, an establishment will receive a follow-up visit to determine whether those violations were corrected.
Only a few restaurants so far have participated in the virtual inspection process, which started earlier this month. A check of DHEC's Food Grades website shows that most restaurants that have been inspected since early April have received A ratings.
Ed Buffington, co-owner of Community Tap, recently went through the virtual inspection to get approval to open Trailside Tap. He said it was a quick and easy process that used Facetime to show the inspectors all of the areas they needed to see.
“It was basically the same (as an in-person inspection), but without feet on the ground,” Buffington said.
The inspectors looked at the handwashing stations, cooler area, sanitizing equipment and more, and Buffington said the inspection was done in about 30 minutes. Trailside Tap received an A rating.
“I’m hoping that next time it’ll be in-person,” Buffington said.