The Tremont Diner in the Bronx had set up a few tables outside, where patrons enjoyed lunch and a sunny day, with few cars passing by to interrupt the tranquility. Inside, a customer picked up his take-out order, and a few others took seats as the staff refilled their coffee mugs and took their orders.
Restaurant health inspections halted when New York City went into lockdown in mid-March and didn’t resume until August, causing a months-long backlog at the city’s health department. One of the first to be inspected, on September 21, was this diner, just off East Tremont Avenue.
“The officer was professional and thorough,” said Demetri Voulkoudis, who took over as manager in August. “The process was educative, which I appreciated more than them telling us what was wrong.”
The inspection process has changed substantially, and will no longer result in the familiar letter grades posted in a front window, the health department says.
New York city boasts over 27,000 restaurants, and the health department is supposed to randomly inspect all of them once a year. But although restaurants were permitted to provide take-out food, and could reopen for outdoor dining in June, the inspection of La Tombola in Brooklyn this summer marked the first inspection in months.
And it may take a long time for the health department to catch up. It has 100 restaurant inspectors, who conduct two to three inspections a day, each requiring a couple of hours, said Department of Health Deputy Press Secretary Michael Lanza. The department would not provide information on how many restaurants its inspectors have visited since they resumed work.
In post-pandemic New York, the department uses, “a modified inspection protocol designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission among inspectors and restaurant staff,” Lanza said in an email.
Moreover, the department now informs the restaurant which week the inspection will occur, rather than showing up unexpectedly. Instead of giving grades based on the number of health code violations they find, inspectors will educate restaurant owners and staff so that they can correct their shortcomings. However, if inspectors find a public health hazard that can’t be remedied by the end of the visit, the restaurant must close until it can address the issue.
“We are focused on identifying food safety conditions most associated with foodborne illness, as well as checking for compliance with the COVID-19 requirements,” Lanza added. .
Lewis Ziska, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said it’s unclear whether a lack of inspection might affect public health, specifically regarding the coronavirus. But he added that the virus is a respiratory one, not gastro-intestinal, which reduces the risks of acquiring it through contact or food.
He suggested that increased attention to sanitary details during the pandemic might even reduce diners’ exposure to other pathogens that cause stomach flu and other gastro-intestinal diseases. However, this possibility has not yet been tested.
The industry appreciates the new approach. “The health department is being considerate,” said Kathleen Reilly, government affairs coordinator at the New York State Restaurant Association. “The inspections are as unobtrusive as possible and they appreciate it’s education-focused and not punitive.”
Voulkoudis agreed.. “Chefs, managers, owners, they might have more knowledge,” he said. “The educational approach works better because you’re working together. You get insight, talk about experiences and what could be done.”
The Tremont Diner will get randomly inspected again, he said, but the officer didn’t inform him of the coronavirus protocols and the health department’s website provides no details. “There was a restaurant not far from here where they had an inspector come in to check the ID’s and make sure they corresponded with the contact tracing information,” Voulkoudis said.
Restaurants were hit hard during the pandemic and in a study the association released last month, nearly 64 percent of the state’s restaurants said they are likely to close by the end of the year.
Voulkoudis believes the number could be even higher. As the weather gets colder, outdoor dining will become increasingly difficult and restaurants won’t be able to stay afloat. “The place has community support but it’s difficult to pay the bills now. I’m reaching out to tent companies but it may not be worth it,” he said, since the diner doesn’t have a lot of outdoor space.
Meanwhile, the diner staff dressed up plastic skeletons and seated them in booths to ensure people would respect social distancing and avoid certain seating areas. In one booth, a skeleton was reading a newspaper; in another, a skeletal mom had placed her two bony kids on booster seats. “We might keep them around and dress them up for Christmas,” Voulkoudis said.
(Photos by Dala Osseiran)