Santana: Is Restaurant Enforcement or Education the Key to Orange County Reopening?

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A restaurant in South Orange County offers social distanced outdoor dining during coronavirus restrictions on Jun. 30, 2020.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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When Orange County Supervisors quickly reopened the local economy over the Memorial Day weekend, they emphasized the value of education over enforcement when it came to restaurants and Coronavirus.

Yet in almost no time after the reopening, Coronavirus cases and outbreaks spiked.

Along with deaths.

The spikes quickly drove another official shutdown for Orange County.

It’s unclear exactly what drove the spikes but many epidemiologists point to indoor bars and restaurants as likely key drivers of outbreaks.

At the time of the reopening, OC press corps members repeatedly asked at County of Orange press conferences about the reported lax enforcement by Orange County Health Care Agency restaurant inspectors and the potential impacts of going soft on enforcement.

County officials and supervisors assured the press corps and the public that education would be the key to cooperation.

At one recent County of Orange press conference, I publicly asked for specifics on what kind of engagement had occurred – things like how many site inspections, educational interactions – out in the field.

From the statements of officials like Kim and county supervisors, it seemed as if there was an army of health inspectors that were fanning out across the county to interact and educate responsible restaurant owners.

Yet official records, forwarded because of  Voice of OC questioning, show the process was much weaker than presented.

According to statistics collected by the County of Orange Health Care Agency, since June county health inspectors have only conducted site inspections at about 2,000 sites – out of 10,000 restaurants with health permits.

And of those 2,000 restaurants visited, “there is a COVID non-compliance rate of approximately 40%.” according to County of Orange responses to Voice of OC questions.

That number has never been revealed to the public by county officials.

What is even more troubling is the answer you get back when you ask how many health inspectors does the County of Orange employ?

The current number is 51 – and they are running about a dozen short, which has been the case for the last five years, according to statistics forwarded by the Health Care Agency.

That’ averages to about 196 restaurants for each inspector to monitor.

On top of that shortage, county supervisors very clearly set a public standard from the dais for health inspectors to stay away from citing restaurants focusing instead on education.

According to statistics and statements forwarded by the OC Health Care Agency, it looks like between March and May, “Environmental Health Specialists conducted nearly 5,000 site assessments, which included facility audits and education (guidance documents handed out, discussions/questions answered and health order(s) distributed)”

It looks like email blasts were also sent out about a half dozen times between March and July to the 10,000 restaurants.

“Aside from the above outreach, food inspectors interacted with restaurant owners/operators on a near daily basis to answer questions and provide updates on health or mandates or changes to the State’s guidance documents with phone calls and individual emails; most restaurants have assigned inspectors and the facility contacts would also reach out to the district inspector,” read the statement from HCA.

Sounds great but again when you match that against the fact there’s only 51 inspectors – responsible for about 200 restaurants each – it makes the process sound rather hollow.

HCA officials note that inspectors do respond to complaints and connect with a state strike force that is reportedly now tasked with enforcement.

“Environmental Health has responded to hundreds of complaints regarding COVID non-compliance and provided education (health order and/or State’s guidance).  Repeat complaints from the public are compiled in a list and provided to the State’s Task Force on a weekly basis.”

Sounds to me like county officials have essentially handed enforcement over the state.

A smart move politically in a political year given that county supervisors have historically enjoyed solid campaign fundraising support from the restaurant industry, evidenced by supervisors’ defense of  a pass/fail system of food health inspections at restaurants as opposed to the letter grade given in other counties like Los Angeles and called for by notable industry observers, like the Orange County Register’s restaurant critic, Brad Johnson back in 2014.

Former County Public Health Director Dr. Nicole Quick early in the epidemic very clearly stated that HCA health inspectors would enforce COVID-related health orders at restaurants. She later resigned under public pressure from county supervisors over her approach, which included a controversial mandatory mask order.

Dr. Clayton Chau, who took over as head of HCA after Quick’s resignation has since sounded a very different approach, saying that enforcement of Covid-related health orders remain with the state, citing a county counsel opinion.

What is also clear for those of us that watch the county budget is that even if county officials wanted to have a vibrant restaurant outreach program, they don’t have the resources.

Orange County supervisors have consistently drained resources from the Health Care Agency in recent years to help fund lucrative raises for Deputy Sheriffs, whose union spent generously on independent campaign spending on behalf of nearly all supervisors in recent years.

Recent Deputy Sheriff salary contract votes – adopted without any kind of public analysis or statements, even from supportive supervisors – have severely limited funding for public health – a need the pandemic has clearly highlighted.

Given that funding shortage, county supervisors have turned to the Orange County Business Council to create an outreach program for local restaurants – aimed at luring compliance with health orders by offering $1,000 for restaurants that comply with masking and other cleaning requirements.

The program – funded by CARES Act dollars – has a budget of about $10 million and OCBC officials say restaurants will be able to largely to do compliance by submitting receipts for things like cleaning supplies and photos of appropriate signage to an OCBC-run website.

OCBC President Lucy Dunn defended the program, saying it doesn’t just only help local businesses but also boosts consumer confidence at a critical time.

Yet effective government regulation is what ultimately boosts consumer confidence.

As a local taxpayer and resident, I expect effective regulation from a $6 billion bureaucracy like the County of Orange.

That means a properly funded public health department that can help me save my economy and allow me to safely leave my home.

Indeed, this very week, the County of Orange released its draft annual budget but I didn’t see anything about bolstering the beleaguered Health Care Agency.

I’m sure Orange County supervisors will address it during their next public meeting on Aug. 25 before they adopt the budget.

That would be quite a thing to see, fiscal and programmatic leadership during hard times.

Instead, I see more education campaigns are on the way.

For this Thursday’s weekly county press conference – broadcast on Facebook – the official agenda is about rolling out more taxpayer-funded education efforts, this time with a “Orange County celebrity partner.”