The Colorado Springs Gazette final

Springs restaurant inspections return to normal post-pandemic


Leaving a water bottle uncapped or touching your hair without immediately washing your hands might seem inconsequential, but such actions in a restaurant kitchen constitute violations that result in a ding during an unannounced public health inspection.

Too many small or large breaches of the food safety code add up to an unfavorable report and a swifter return of the public health inspector.

While a surprise visit of a county health official seems like an anxiety-ridden intrusion for some restaurant owners and managers, in recent years the system has become less disciplinary-minded and more instruction-focused, said Sammi Jo Lawson, retail food program manager for the El Paso County Public Health.

“We work really hard to build partnerships and provide education, so that the business owner knows we’re there first and foremost to help them — although it may not seem that way,” she said. “They’re not always excited to see us.”

Some say they don’t mind. Because who doesn’t want to avoid the chance of spreading a food-borne illness, said Steve Kanatzar, a pilot who 22 years ago opened The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs. The aviation-themed eatery near the airport is built inside an old Boeing KC97, an Air Force tanker aircraft.

“It used to be that some restaurants would hate it (an inspection), but we want to serve safe food, too,” Kanatzar said.

“It’s not an adversarial or contentious relationship like it used to be.”

That an inspector will arrive at the door unexpectedly and spend two to four hours of acting like a fly on the wall watching, checking and making notes is necessary to achieve the goal of recording an operational snapshot in time, Kanatzar said.

“That’s why they don’t notify you — because anybody can do a dog-and-pony show,” he said. “They want to look at our practices. They’ll observe cooking and food being served to make sure no bad habits have been formed.”

More times than not, if an inspector spots a deficiency, they’ll red flag it but then help staff correct the problem on site, Kanatzar said.

“If the health inspector sees something that requires a change in process, we’ll work with the owners; there are different ways to go about it,” Lawson said.

A few weeks short of the end of 2023, reports show the most commonly marked violation in El Paso County is “Food contact surfaces; cleaned and sanitized,” she said.

“Higher violations tend to be in establishments that don’t have managerial control — if they don’t have basic food safety knowledge,” Lawson said.

“When we encounter issues, it’s typically a knowledge gap. It’s not that they’re purposely trying to do something.”

A major change could be coming to the industry, as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is set to vote Jan. 17 on whether to adopt a new federal drug and food administration food code. The state follows the 2013 federal food code.

One of the major changes in the updated version is that a certified food protection manager must be on duty at a restaurant during all hours of operation.

The Colorado Restaurant Association is calling for enactment of that requirement to be delayed for a year, to give restaurants time to get people trained and in place, said Kanatzar, past chairman of the board of the association.

The class is more in-depth than usual, he said, and the Pikes Peak Restaurant Association in conjunction with food purveyors offer the class for local restaurants. The new code also updates how restaurants are to handle food allergies.

An emphasis on teaching rather than reprimanding was solidified during the coronavirus pandemic, when the governor ordered restaurants to close for in-person dining and switch to takeout service.

County public health employees became the experts on interpreting the new ways of doing things and conveying that to businesses that fall under their scrutiny, which include restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, mobile food trucks, coffee shops, bakeries, school cafeterias, health care facilities, residential senior centers and special-event vendors.

The situation was confusing and chaotic as the governor’s public health orders were in flux throughout the pandemic, Lawson said.

“It forced us to shift priorities in 2020, 2021 and into 2022,” she said. “My team assisted owners and operators through navigating the ever-changing rules, based on where they fell as a business sector.”

For example, grocery stores and convenience stores had no capacity restrictions, but restaurants and event spaces did. That necessitated 15 to 20 environmental health specialists assisting businesses in determining their capacity, and creating outdoor dining, drive-thru and food delivery and pickup models, where none existed before.

“We’re used to interpreting rules and regulations, which is why were put into interpreting rules the governor set,” Lawson said referring to how employees had to pivot.

“We really wanted to remove any barriers that businesses might have had, and we still had to complete our typical day-to-day routine.”

In addition to conducting routine inspections, environmental health specialists are called in anytime a restaurant is sold or a different owner takes over. They were busy during the pandemic.

In 2021, 233 food-related facilities underwent a change of ownership, another 208 last year and 247 this year, with several weeks of 2023 yet uncounted.

“We definitely saw a lot of turnover in restaurants — more than normal — and from a licensing standpoint it’s the highest,” Lawson said. “The impacts to the industry were significant.”

Despite some restaurant closures, the number of full-service eateries has steadily grown over the past five years, increasing from 1,516 in 2019 to 1,683 this year, also the most the county has had.

Retail food licenses, which include grocery and convenience stores and other businesses with public food consumption, grew from 2,691 in 2019 to 3,072 this year, another record high.

Public health also established a COVID call line for the public. The majority of calls were not related to retail food issues but complaints about what the governor’s orders said and what was required of restaurants and other businesses.

Between March 2020 and March 2022, the hotline fielded 1,996 general questions and 2,141 complaints, according to statistics from El Paso County Public Health. Of those, 766 were specific to retail food establishments, Lawson said.

In normal times, the department handles 30 complaints a month or 360 a year pertaining to the retail food arena, officials said.

The higher the risk, the more often a restaurant will be inspected, Lawson said, whether that’s every other year, every year or two to three times a year. The frequency is dictated by whether a restaurant passes or fails an inspection, if there’s a change in process and whether they serve high-risk food, such as sushi. A convenience store that sells commercially made food and is not assembling anything is very low risk and subject to inspection every other year, for example.

Preventing the likelihood of people getting sick from foodborne germs involve following good hygiene practices, such as proper use of gloves, maintaining proper cooking and holding temperatures, buying from approved sources, eliminating contamination of equipment and correctly cleaning and sanitizing.

Inspectors examine 56 points pertaining to the restaurant’s risk of food-borne illnesses to its use of good industry practices.

“A lot of it is common sense: washing hands your thoroughly after going to the bathroom or smoking, or touching your face or hair, and not coming to work if you’re sick,” Kanatzar said.

Post-pandemic, the public health processes are back to normal, Lawson said, and a new software program allows for daily, live updating of inspections.

Shutting down a restaurant for violations is rare but happens, she said.

“Anytime we have to do a closure we are working diligently with that owner; we don’t leave without outlining specific corrections or conditions for reopening, so they know what has to be done,” Lawson said.





The Gazette, Colorado Springs