Health inspectors slowly returning to restaurants and bars as Springfield opens up

Many switched rolls, conducted COVID-19 contract tracing throughout pandemic
Published: Apr. 6, 2021 at 6:06 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Routine health inspections at restaurants and bars have looked quite different over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the city of Springfield begins easing certain restrictions, health inspectors will slowly begin transition back to their former roles. Throughout the pandemic, they pivoted to other positions focused more so on larger health concerns in the area.

“Back in June of 2020, we were seeing our cases rise exponentially and we needed bodies,” Springfield-Greene County Health Department Health Program Administrator Andee Elmore said. “People who were used to doing investigative type of work to be able to interview people and do that contact tracing. And that is not an easy job. These are individuals that have strong critical thinking skills, a strong science background.”

Elmore said public health investigators are always “pivoted toward” the “greatest public health concern.”

Normally the usual checkups at bars and restaurants take place a few times a year, but lately it has been more of a “see something say something approach,” Elmore said.

”Whenever we get a call from someone in the public that has a concern about a restaurant, no matter what the issue, we are going out on those complaints and investigating those complaints,” she said.

Those complaints fell into a wide range of categories.

“We get calls from members of the community, who maybe have dined at a restaurant and they find something that concerns them,” Elmore said. “Using the kind of ‘see something, say something’ approach. This could be something related to the ordinance, it could be something about their food not tasting right.”

New businesses still had inspections, like Kathy Stewart did when she bought her Pizza restaurant in Willard back towards the end of 2020.

”[It included] the normal inspections of your cooling situations, your coolers, making sure everything was up to the proper temperatures, making sure everything was clean and correct working order,” Pizano’s Pizza owner Kathy Stewart said.

Back then, Stewart heard COVID-19 had priority over routine checks.

”From what I was told, they had several places they weren’t able to get to, whatever the reason... Everything causing a lot of issues of being able to get to everyone again and be on the normal schedule,” she said.

It has not been a huge concern for Stewart since she has already had her inspections, but some wonder if they would get any reimbursement since they are still paying for their permits, which include inspections.

”But if we’re paying for it, obviously I would like to be provided the service, absolutely,” Stewart said.

The health department said it is still providing the services associated with those fees, just temporarily scaled back. But now that the city is starting to open up a bit more and cases continue to drop, Elmore said she hopes to get those ordinary procedures back to normal soon.

“As our inspectors get back into the field, it is almost like re-introduction of themselves to the owners and just walking alongside them and helping them with the challenges they have faced throughout this pandemic,” she said.

Some staff are transitioning back to the Food Program. Elmore said it could be some time before routine inspections are back up to speed. The health department said it may also have to adapt to many restaurants’ business models that changed from the pandemic.

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