Food inspections performed by the Kendall County Health Department saw a big drop at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by a four-month pause on routine inspections and an environmental health unit hit with major new responsibilities.
The department conducted 521 total inspections last year, down from 818 in 2019. Re-inspections totaled 76 in 2020. But the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
The health department’s environmental health unit handles inspections beyond restaurant standards, from tick surveillance to radon level testing and tanning salon inspections.
But food inspections stopped completely in March at the onset of the pandemic, not resuming until July. Amid the months-long pause, a whole new kind of oversight was assigned to the health department’s environmental unit, which has four full-time staff members and one part-time employee. To accommodate this new world, the unit shifted to still-open essential businesses and providing information on COVID-19 guidance, then eventually resumed inspections.
“Once back, inspectors prioritized the highest-risk facilities to ensure that the greatest needs were addressed first,” said Aaron Ryski, the health department’s director of environmental health services.
High-risk facilities included restaurants with little experience in take-out orders and dining establishments that had benefited from inspections in the past.
“Since traditional inspections weren’t occurring, we had concerns that [businesses] might slip into old habits or make other mistakes,” Rybski said. “We tried to do the most good as quickly as possible when we got back into facilities so we prioritized as best we could.”
Rybski said the health department is not able to track how many citations it issues for health code violations.
On top of traditional food inspections, the health department began prioritizing mask compliance among restaurant staff. Inspectors have since addressed scores of complaints over masking, Rybski confirmed. Although most establishments comply, the health department official said some people have been resistant.
“We do what we can,” Rybski said, adding that the state’s mask mandate is set to expire next month, but officials don’t know if it will be extended.
“I believe that despite all our efforts to reach folks, many still don’t know that masking is one of the best ways to help us all get back to normal,” he said.
Although local COVID-19 case counts remain far lower than the wintertime third wave, the environmental health unit continues to be affected by the pandemic to the detriment of their other operations.
A vaccination campaign brought another new layer of responsibilities, as well. Staff worked the county’s mobile vaccination site and numerous mass vaccination clinics, answering questions and sometimes bringing vials of the vaccine to the site in the event of shortages.
“All of this does take a considerable amount of staff time,” Rybski said. “All of this work takes time away from other tasks, so we need to be as efficient as possible with all the other work we are doing.”