The NYC Health Department Relaxes Inspections, No Longer Gives Restaurants Letter Grades, State Liquor Authority Cracks Down

Scheduled visits, and suspension of summonses, are among the COVID-related changes intended to help restaurateurs.

March 16th saw all sit-down dining halt, and with it went the inspections from the Department of Health (DOH). While indoor dining is yet to resume, DOH started inspecting restaurants again on August 17, however, with some very notable caveats, NYC Hospitality Alliance informed its members.

DOH will now inform owners of their inspection window, focus on education, and forgo its controversial letter grading system. Inspectors will still check for hazards, will close establishments if they are found to be endangering the public’s health, and write a summons if restaurant staff interfere or obstruct the inspection process.

“Inspections will be shorter, limited to checking for conditions most associated with foodborne illness, pest conditions, compliance with New York State COVID-19 requirements and smoking,” DOH says.

This is an unrecognizable system for bars and restaurants familiar with DOH inspections pre-COVID. At best, they were known to owners like Richard Boccato, as a necessary evil. 

“We’re used to seeing them arrive in the middle of 10 p.m. on a Friday night during service, which is completely disruptive,” the Dutch Kills owner said. “However at the same time, the inspector’s just doing his or her job.”

The department cites the COVID-19 crisis as justification for this policy shift. Its updated policies include provisions outlining the precautions inspectors will be taking and in turn expect establishments to follow.

Additionally, in a letter sent to all restaurateurs, the department states that it is “aware of the hardships created by the COVID-19 public health emergency” and the accompanying mandates designed to slow the spread. 

“Eliminating fines and educating restaurant staff about the new requirements will, hopefully, allow restaurants to operate successfully amidst these challenges,” the letter said. It’s an unfamiliar message coming from law enforcement — and certainly a welcome reprieve for already strung-out restaurant and bar owners and staff. 

The State Liquor Authority Is Cracking Down On Violations

The DoH’s new approach to health inspections is at odds with the efforts of other enforcement agencies enlisted to regulate New York out of the COVID-19 crisis, in particular, the State Liquor Authority (SLA).

Since ramping up its hiring, the SLA has issued more than 800 citations, resulting in over 150 revoked liquor licenses across the city. It is unclear how this compares to past years, for no data was made available by the State Liquor Authority. Additionally, the SLA has released several announcements, modifying and adjusting its existing provisions to adjust for COVID-19. And in a series of controversial updates, Governor Cuomo has further modified alcohol service requirements with specious, vague definitions. These changes and vagaries have made it difficult for bar owners to be certain if their food service is within compliance.

State senators have taken notice of the impact of the SLA’s policies. In a statement issued by her office, Senator Jessica Ramos cites strict guidelines and high fines as destructive to the chances of businesses surviving the economic crisis created by the pandemic. And in a press conference held earlier this month, Senator Ramos shared that the numerous state agencies regulating restaurants and bars, among them the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and State Sheriffs, are not communicating with one another. 

“We need clarity, we need understanding, we don’t just need fines, regulations and prohibitions without any kind of clarity,” Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou said. “Our businesses are being targeted unfairly, our businesses are suffering because of the right hand not speaking to the left hand.”

The confusion and uncertainty only exacerbate the numerous challenges presented to all restaurant and bar owners. According to the NYC Hospitality Alliance, 83% of restaurants and bars surveyed could not pay their full July rent. And for all its worth, outdoor dining has turned out to not be the vital stopgap some hoped it would be. 

At Dutch Kills, their outdoor dining has returned an “infinitesimal fraction of our normal, pre-COVID earnings,” says Boccato. The bar also had to perform an oft-seen pivot, bringing in another player to handle their food so they could be compliant with the new regulations. For Dutch Kills, it was E Stretto, an LA-based sandwich maker.

However, not everyone has found they can make it work. East Village cocktail bar Mr. Paradise opted to close when faced with the challenges of compliance with the governor’s food mandate. Citing the sizable fines, the threat of losing their license, and zealous enforcement on the part of SLA agents, co-owners Will Wyatt and Eric Kruvant decided to call it quits.

While compliance with COVID-focused directives is a priority, the DOH is one of few agencies adapting its approach to make sense for restaurateurs in a challenging environment. Said Boccato, “It is certainly a bad time for bars and restaurants to be receiving fines when our income is dubious and questionable at best.”

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Evan Stark

Evan Stark is a writer and chef. Based in Brooklyn, he writes about the service industry in New York City.

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