By Gaby Rios and Margarita Torres
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry and has been a game-changer for food health inspectors here in Chicago.
When the pandemic started, many began focusing on the effect of mandated shutdowns on restaurants: in-person dining closures and employee layoffs.
According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments in the United States were forced to temporarily or permanently close for business from March 2020 to January 2021.
In Illinois, it has been more than a year since all food and cuisine establishments were ordered to halt in-door dining, however, Gov. J.B. Pritzer has unveiled a path toward fully reopening bars and restaurants.
This bridge phase will begin when 70% of the population, aged 65 and older has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and to Phase 5 when 50% of the population aged 16 and older follows suit. According to Pritzer, 58% of those aged 65 and older have already been administered the vaccine.
As establishment shutdowns became more apparent, it triggered fears of uncertainty. Restaurant owners grew concerned about remaining open for business, and how to gain revenue from their limited menu and occupancy.
Small and local businesses in particular were struggling to survive the pandemic. According to Womply Research, 55% of small and local business owners admitted their business wouldn’t survive if sales stopped for one to three months, and 21% said they wouldn’t even survive one month.
Restaurant owners had to be innovative, began marketing their business to receive sales, and utilized social media to gain traction and reach more people. They also had to advocate for themselves, and subsequently called out Pritzer and demanded action for immediate relief.
Alexandra Vargas, 20 who works as a store clerk at Weber’s Bakery, said the business had to implement new changes in order to continue running their business.
“Since COVID-19, we have started offering curbside pickup, and we’ve done so many different versions of it, to find out what works best for us, since we are so busy,” she said. “Usually I’m just a store clerk, but whenever a customer comes in and wants something, we just grab it for them, and box it up.”
Many restaurants did not have the appropriate funds or stability to remain open for business. According to Time Out Magazine, there have been 65 Chicago restaurants and bars permanently closed as of February.
Amid the chaos brought on by COVID-19, restaurants of all sizes, locations, and niches had to adapt and implement new safety measures to continue operating.
This meant some establishments could no longer afford to provide their full menu, had to alter store or restaurant hours, and many took a hard hit financially as a result.
“So we just had a limited menu … we only had our basic doughnuts, and stuff like that, and our hours were shortened,” Vargas said. “So we just had what we would call, COVID hours, because we would just try to close early, and try to get the customer in and out as fast as possible.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, health inspectors were not top of mind. In March, the FDA temporarily postponed in-person inspections, but now they’re coming back, but the requirements are slightly different.
Trained to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses, health inspectors are tasked with assuring that restaurants are complying with the guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Isabelle Campa, 20, an assistant general manager at Taco Bell, has experienced first-hand what a typical inspection is like, and the repercussions for the restaurant failing to meet the requirements to remain open.
“My first experience was as a cashier, and basically, they come and ensure that we are following proper procedures, that we’re serving the customers the correct amount of food, and things like that,” she said. “Now as a manager, a lot more is expected of me, and I have to be certified in food safety because if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to work my shift alone.”
With all the modifications that have accompanied COVID-19, the biggest changes that health inspectors look for have been for employees to follow proper procedures when handling food, and safety.
“It’s obviously really important to them that we do well in the shop, but that we’re following proper procedures, such as making sure that every person is wearing their masks properly, that we’re constantly changing gloves, sanitizing, and that we’re following a contactless procedure, things like that,” she said. “But, you know, everything in the store needs to have a timestamp. There can’t be expired products, and all the food needs to be at the correct temperature.”
Without contactless procedures, social distancing, masks, gloves worn properly, and disinfecting no establishment will remain open, and pass an inspection.
Inspections are meant to be random. However, Campa and Vargas stated that it was not difficult to notice an inspector. Stating that many of the stores communicate, and when an inspector comes in, they have a similar order.
The Food Protection Division of the Chicago Department of Public Health inspects establishments and evaluates their ability to maintain the safety of food bought, sold, or prepared for public consumption in Chicago.
Despite the new guidelines associated with health inspections, there has been a decrease in the number of inspections conducted, and how long they last.
“Before their inspections would last, like two to three hours, and now they’re only allowed in the restaurant for 30 minutes,” Campa said.
However, both Vargas and Campa admitted to not having an inspection since COVID-19 began.
While the increase in safety measures is government-mandated, many of these changes will linger as the pandemic fades. Restaurants have learned this is a critical part in preventing future risks.
Restaurants are progressively offering dine-in experiences with social distancing and masks worn when not eating, but it still comes at a cost with COVID-19 amidst.
Brittany Siegler, 30, a Weber’s Bakery customer, said the pandemic has changed her shopping habits.
“I’ve only recently started coming to this bakery, but it’s hard to see what this pandemic has done to the service industry,” she said. “I only do curbside pickup, because I still worry about contracting the virus, but I also can’t stop living my life, and contributing to small businesses.”
With the pandemic still going, many establishments and their employees remain skeptical about whether it is appropriate for restaurants to reopen. Some feel that it’s premature to fully open back up when most people will disregard safety precautions, and do as they please.
Margaret Sietsema, Ph.D., an assistant public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, specializes in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. She said she believes the risk to restaurant workers and customers is still high.
“I would not recommend fully opening,” Sietsema said. “We’re still at a really high risk today, we’re seeing different variants that are more infectious, more easily transmitted, vaccination rates are not anywhere where they need to be, and even if they were, we are seeing that some of the variants can get around vaccinations, and we call that vaccination breakthrough.”
Meanwhile, others believe that as long as precautions are taken into consideration, then they should feel safe welcoming people back.
“I think it’s fine…we’re taking the precautions necessary and I’m sure other places are taking precautions as well,” Vargas said. “So that they should be able to open and they should be able to run smoothly and efficiently and keep everyone safe at the same time.”