ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – You might think everyone should know the rules by now when it comes to COVID-safe practices in businesses and public places. However, reports generated by the City of Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department show inspectors are working hard to track down and crack down on continued health order violations at food-related businesses.
In normal times, the city’s health inspectors are checking restaurants and grocery stores for a wide range of risks including temperature controls, pests, and making sure employees wash their hands. In the era of COVID-19, inspectors have an added layer of work in making sure people are following the state’s Public Health Order and the so-called COVID-safe practices.
Weekly food permit inspection reports show City of Albuquerque inspectors are encountering numerous issues with food-related businesses. Some problems noted in recent reports include employees not wearing masks, social distancing related issues and too many people inside of businesses, violating occupancy limitations.
Deputy Director of Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department, Dr. Mark DiMenna says the city is either warning businesses or threatening to pull food permits for businesses with repeated compliance issues. Fines aren’t common.
“If we find a food permit facility that cannot come into compliance, we’re not going to fine them, we’re not going to cite them; we’re just going to suspend their permit,” DiMenna said. “This is absolutely a public health issue, typically as I said we’re looking for food issues, right now we’re looking for COVID-safe issues, as well.”
In July alone, DiMenna estimates between five and ten businesses were threatened with suspension of their food permits. However, the city hasn’t pulled or suspended a single food permit yet, saying all businesses have come into compliance once they’ve realized what they could lose.
Over the course of the last two reports, violations have been noted at grocery stores and restaurants all over Albuquerque. Near Old Town, the D.H. Les Combes Winery and Bistro were warned on August 19 after inspectors found the businesses were “offering live music” according to a city report. The report states the restaurant “canceled future events.”
A bakery in the International District, Panaderia Pastelandia got a warning on August 21 after inspectors “observed two employees in the kitchen not wearing face coverings at the time of inspection.” The report states the violation was “corrected on-site” after the inspectors “discussed proper procedures.”
In Nob Hill, Scalo received a warning on August 28 after “several employees” were observed “not wearing face coverings in the restaurant’s kitchen. According to the report, the violation was “corrected on-site” after inspectors “discussed proper procedures.”
The city’s reports also show inspectors are getting to dozens of businesses every week. Around ten businesses were warned about the Public Health Order and COVID-safe practices in the last report covering August 19 through August 28.
“Everyone should know the rules and should follow them, just for our safety and their safety,” said Martin Madrid of Albuquerque. “A lot of people don’t like to do it, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”
DiMenna says by in large as time goes on, food-related businesses are increasingly coming into compliance as businesses are finding out exactly what the state’s rules are. He also attributes compliance to customers demanding businesses follow the Public Health Order and the state’s COVID-safe practices rule sheet.
“Businesses are finding that their customers are not only willing to flex along with them more than they suspected, get used to some different operating conditions,” DiMenna said. “But actually the customers are demanding it and as businesses are finding that their customers won’t come in if they’re not operating safely they’ve got another motivation besides (the city’s.)”
The city says it’s also still encouraging and investigating COVID-safety-related complaints about businesses accused of not following the rules. Any complaints should be directed to the City of Albuquerque’s 311 hotline or via email to the state of New Mexico Environment Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.