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Inspections of SC restaurants largely stay virtual as COVID risk remains high

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021 at 7:38 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Restaurants across South Carolina have been allowed to operate at 100-percent capacity since October, but despite crowds of customers pouring in, many places have not received an in-person food inspection since the pandemic began.

Food inspectors with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control are primarily continuing to review restaurants virtually while the state is considered to be at high risk for spread of COVID-19.

CLICK HERE to see recent DHEC restaurant inspection reports.

At the start of the pandemic, the state stopped in-person food inspections because of safety concerns, and after a review of dozens of inspections from restaurants to school cafeterias, most inspections in the time since, have been done over videoconferencing apps like Facetime, Skype, and Microsoft Teams.

In at least one case, a Charleston County restaurant had a “poor Facetime connection,” so an inspector passed the restaurant after reviewing photos and having a phone conversation with someone in the kitchen.

Kimberly Baker, the director for Clemson University’s Food Systems and Safety Program, works with restaurants on how to keep their facilities and food preparation safe.

“An inspector is virtually going through that restaurant and asking immediately, ‘Let’s take a temperature of anything that’s being hot held,” Baker said. “Even though it’s virtual and that inspector is not there in person, they certainly can get a really good glimpse of exactly what are the safety precautions going on in that restaurant just as if they were there.”

In these virtual visits, inspectors focus on the “critical risk factors” that are most likely to cause a foodborne illness, according to the department. It’s why they temporarily stopped issuing letter grades and switched to a pass or fail rating.

“If the manager is not taking them to a certain area, just to be able to not show that area because they may not be in compliance, then that’s probably a hard part of that inspection,” Baker said. “We really need to make sure that everyone understands that this is a really great way to keep inspections going, but it’s certainly not a 100-percent replacement of the in-person.”

“Our virtual inspection process will continue to be our primary food safety validation while South Carolina is considered to be at high risk for the spread of COVID-19,” DHEC said in a statement, calling the inspections “a highly effective method of validating food safety in permitted facilities.”

The virtual process received mixed reactions from people in downtown Charleston.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Molly Milton said. “It’s just been a moment where we all have to lower our expectations a little bit and adjust. So, I’m fine with it. Probably not ideal. But I trust.”

“If I had a restaurant, and I didn’t want you to see one of my ice boxes, you wouldn’t see it. You’d see the one that’s cleaned up,” David Segrest said. “Obviously, it’s better to be there, but Zoom and virtual is better than having no inspections.”

The health department stated the reason they’re keeping inspections virtual is “for the safety of the employees of the retail food establishment and [their] DHEC staff as social distancing is very difficult to obtain in most retail food establishment kitchens.”

In cases where social distancing and other COVID-19 recommended safety precautions can be met, inspectors have started to transition to in-person inspections. Facilities that do not have the capability to conduct virtual inspections will also be included in this phase.

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