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Florida halts routine restaurant inspections as thousands offer take-out orders

The shuttering of inspections raises questions about food safety when restaurants cut staff to operate with skeleton crews.

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Days after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all restaurants to shift to take-out or delivery service, the state ordered all of its restaurant inspectors to stop routine examinations at thousands of Florida eateries.

On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation ordered inspectors at its Division of Hotels and Restaurants to work from home and cancel any scheduled inspections, according to documents the Tampa Bay Times obtained on Friday.

The shuttering of inspections raises questions about food safety in the pandemic. Thousands of restaurants cut employees and are operating with skeleton crews in an effort to stay afloat. Nobody is inspecting hand-washing stations or making sure establishments sanitize equipment.

Instead of inspecting restaurants, the employees were ordered to call restaurants and read scripts that detail the dangers of the coronavirus, documents show. Employees were told to not deviate from the message, including telling establishments that customers cannot eat on the premises.

Additional talking points include reminders about hand washing and how to screen employees for potential coronavirus symptoms. The employees also offer to supply copies of the governor’s executive orders. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation developed the script on Thursday, the documents show.

The agency said it is still performing inspections when the public files complaints, but documents show employees were told to stop routine inspections.

The agency “continues to conduct inspections of public food service and lodging establishments in response to public complaints and processing of licensing matters,” spokeswoman Karen Smith said in statement. “Public health and safety in food service environments remains a priority focus of the Division.”

Smith said the “direct outreach assignments" on the phone are to maximize guidance during the coronavirus emergency. The division, Smith added, “will continue to respond to these matters and support food service operators with maintaining food safety standards during this emergency."

While restaurant inspectors were sidelined, others who examine quality-of-life, code and building issues are still out enforcing laws across the Tampa Bay area.

Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health and an expert on health care policy, said the state has a “sparse fleet of inspectors” and that all available employees are being diverted to help in the crisis. The fact that few restaurants are actually serving people internally means that fewer people are at risk, he said.

“There will be lots of collateral damage during this crisis,” Wolfson said in a statement. “Hopefully, food poisoning and dangerous environments for restaurant workers will not be among them.”

DeSantis issued the executive order to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Coronavirus causes the disease COVID-19, which can cause severe respiratory infections. Doctors say it spreads through droplets that fly when a person sneezes or cough. It’s primarily transmitted person-to-person, though people can also pick up the virus by touching dirty surfaces.

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