Photo by Tracy Certo.

Allegheny County Health Department’s new COVID Field Response Team (COVID-FRT) is on duty, having stopped at 68 food establishments throughout the region in its first two days.

The 10-member task force, which makes daily rounds, was created to ensure that businesses comply with state and county health orders. This includes spacing tables six feet apart, capping indoor occupancy at 25 percent, mandating that staff and customers wear masks, and posting signs reminding customers of safety precautions. Additionally, bar seating and smoking are prohibited, and dine-in service must end at 11 p.m.

Inspection reports are posted online for the public to see.

“During the last week, the team visited about 350 establishments, Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Dept., said in a press conference on Wednesday. “They included bars, restaurants, ice cream shops, grocery stores that offer dining convenience stores, etc.

“The good news is that 87% received an all satisfactory report and are highlighted in green on the list of completed checklists, available through the COVID field response team site,” she added. “13% had at least one item to address, and most of these places had only one item to address staff. The most common with staff not wearing face coverings.”

The second most common violation was allowing too many people for indoor dining.

While those conducting the visits have no enforcement power, they report their findings to the Allegheny County Health Department and educate business owners on current orders.

Violations found during subsequent inspections could result in a facility being shut down by the Health Department’s Food Safety Program.

“There is no penalty or warning,” says Amie Downs, Allegheny County’s director of communications. “This is a process to help educate and inform food establishments of the requirements under the current health orders. Restaurants asked for a process that would show the public which ones were following the rules and doing things correctly. This does that.”

The best rating is 7 out of 7 points. Only a few places scored 6 out of 7 points for violations which included indoor occupancy limits, table spacing and staff face coverings.

Two Mad Mex locations that were inspected, in Robinson and Fox Chapel, passed with flying colors.

Bill Fuller, president of big Burrito Restaurant Group, says team members were cordial during the visits and applauded his commitment to following the rules. There are currently 13 Mad Mex locations open. The group’s specialty restaurants — Casbah, Alta Via, Eleven, Kaya, Soba and Umi — are closed until officials raise occupancy limits.

“I’m all for doing the right thing, but it’s frustrating when others don’t,” Fuller says. “If everybody in the industry did the things we are supposed to, it would go a long way to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the region.”

Complaints regarding establishments that are violating orders may be sent to the Health Department through the Allegheny County Support Center website (to begin, select Request a Service, then Health Department) or by calling the Information Center at 412-350-4636.

Take the pledge 

There’s another group working to keep things safer. Launched on July 17, Safe Service PGH is a separate initiative to ensure the health and safety of food and beverage and event businesses, workers and patrons.

Industry professionals have been meeting since late-March to talk through the challenges and to find solutions, resources and community support.

Here’s how it works: Businesses and customers sign an online form pledging to follow federal, state and local health and safety guidelines. In addition, eateries are taking an extra step, promising to heighten and monitor their sanitizing protocols and administer health checks to staff before the beginning of each employee’s shift.

So far, 36 businesses and 159 patrons have signed the pledge.

Ehrrin Keenan, director of Safe Service PGH, says member meetings will take place in the coming months and surveys will go out to businesses to get a better grasp of the situation. People also can sign up for a monthly newsletter.

“We are not a complaint or policing platform,” Keenan says. “We want to help industry peeps make informed decisions in regards to safety and give a platform for how guests can support those establishments that are following safety procedures. There are multiple conversations happening daily with the county office. We all want to see progress for protecting workers, guests and businesses as a whole. We have so much talent in the hospitality industry. No one wants to see us lose these individuals.”

The group welcomes thoughts on the county’s new COVID Field Response Team.

“We are here to support the safety efforts put forward by the county,” adds Keenan.

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.