When South Carolina lifted its capacity restriction on restaurants, the rule change implied that the state believed full dining rooms and kitchens staffed to provide for them were safe for patrons and workers. But the agency charged with overseeing food safety is keeping its inspectors out of restaurants as a protective measure.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will continue to conduct inspections virtually for as long as “South Carolina is considered to be at high risk for the spread of COVID-19,” which means there is no set date for the resumption of on-site graded inspections, according to spokeswoman Laura Renwick.
“This is for the safety of the employees of the retail food establishments and our DHEC staff as social distancing is very difficult to obtain in a retail food establishment kitchen,” Renwick says.
Since digital tools haven’t previously been applied to restaurant inspections on this scale, it’s too soon to know whether the state’s reliance on virtual checks will have any bearing on restaurant sanitation practices. But Steven Mandernach, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, says South Carolina diners shouldn’t worry about the shift.
“I would not be concerned about the safety of restaurants,” says Mandernach, adding health department leaders elsewhere are following DHEC’s progress with admiration and envy. “This is a case where the country thanks South Carolina for its leadership.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, health departments across the country suspended routine inspections, reallocating resources to the coronavirus fight while dining rooms were closed. Several of them experimented briefly with virtual inspections once restaurants reopened, but South Carolina stands out in its commitment to the format.
Alaska and New Mexico are apparently the only other states which have made virtual inspections the centerpiece of their restaurant oversight strategy, The Post and Courier found.
Because health department tasks aren’t consolidated in every state, the survey included the most populous city or county in decentralized states. Officials from Connecticut, Louisiana and Montana, as well as Detroit and Bergen County, N.J., did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
"South Carolina was an absolute leader in being out of the box," Mandernach reiterates. "I can't even guess how many jurisdictions have modeled what they're doing after South Carolina."
While DHEC hasn’t ruled out sending an inspector to a restaurant “when conditions warrant” it, nearly all inspections are now performed via video call. During the call, the restaurant representative might be asked to take the temperature of deli meat, show the inspector where towel sanitizing solution is kept, display oyster tags or walk through the bathrooms.
Unlike the in-person inspections which were standard prior to the pandemic, virtual inspections result in a “pass” or “fail” designation, rather than a letter grade.
Ultimately, “a virtual inspection will not replace the traditional on-site, graded inspection,” Renwick says. “When in-person inspections resume, the more complex operations and those with compliance issues will be the priority to receive a graded inspection.”
Renwick declined to say how many restaurants have failed a virtual inspection.
Mandernach rejects the notion that compliance issues are flourishing in the absence of in-person inspections, even though many restaurant owners are grappling with severely reduced revenue, employee shortages and countless distractions which don’t fall into either category.
He points out that inspectors are now able to check in with more restaurants because they don’t have to waste time driving between them.
Plus, he says, foodborne illness outbreaks associated with restaurants are down nationwide, in part because fewer people are eating in restaurants, but also because employees with gastrointestinal illnesses seem more likely to stay home when they know they can’t clock in with a fever.
At first, DHEC’s virtual checks were scheduled by request, removing the element of surprise that some experts believe is essential to the legitimacy of inspections.
Matthew Makofske, an applied microeconomist at Murray State University, recently conducted a study of entertainment complexes in Southern Nevada with multiple food outlets. His research showed that on days when an inspector visited more than one of them, the first restaurant inspected had 31 percent more critical violations on average than its sister restaurants.
“It’s a modest amount of time and yet there’s a significant effect on what gets detected,” he says.
In other words, restaurants can correct major problems when their owners know they’re up for inspection. By the same token, Makofske says, if there’s no threat of an inspector showing up unannounced, owners are less likely to comply with food safety standards.
Yet Mandernach cites competing research suggesting that restaurant sanitation improves when inspections are arranged in advance, since owners then have ample opportunity to assess and correct risky employee behaviors. He predicts more health departments will adopt the scheduled virtual checks pioneered by DHEC.
In South Carolina, though, the argument over the value of agreed-upon inspections is purely academic. Although checks are still available on demand, Renwick says DHEC has started administering virtual checks on a random basis.