As dining rooms begin reopening in most Maine counties, consumers still lack the ability to access restaurant inspection records – five years after the state promised to post them online.

The state planned to update its health inspection database in 2015 so it could post inspections on the web, but officials say the project stalled after a contractor failed to fulfill its agreement with the state.

Gov. Janet Mills has urged Mainers to be vigilant about supporting only those businesses that follow official guidance for protecting customers and employees from becoming infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Those guidelines include wearing face coverings, staying at least 6 feet away from other people, washing hands frequently and sterilizing commonly touched surfaces. Enhanced guidelines have been set for restaurants in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties, which were allowed to reopen dining rooms this week.

Mills urged Mainers on Monday to familiarize themselves with those guidelines, so they can make sure businesses are safe. “If you are a customer of a store or a restaurant, check the checklist to make sure you know what they’re supposed to be doing because it takes all of to engage in protection,” Mills said. “The last thing we want to have happen is for anybody to get sick (or) to be tested positive for COVID-19 because they worked at a restaurant or because they had dinner at a restaurant.”

Perhaps nowhere will these guidelines be more important than a dining room, where patrons can linger for an hour or more at tables used by other diners.

While Mills encouraged people to check guidelines to ensure compliance, state officials have not followed through on a 2015 plan to begin posting restaurant inspections online. Had they done so, customers would be able to access an establishment’s compliance with longstanding health codes and safety practices. And that would allow customers to decide for themselves whether an establishment would be likely to take enhanced precautions during the pandemic.

Jeff Nelken, a California consultant who is helping restaurants in Los Angeles reopen under enhanced COVID-19 protocols, said letter grades and online inspection reports – which have been common in L.A. for nearly two decades – are important for consumers and restaurants alike.

“It quickly became very popular, because the restaurant people felt this was a new marketing tool,” Nelken said. “It was an opportunity to show their customer base that they’re doing a good job and got good grades from the health department.”

Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said inspections and health information should be posted outside of restaurants and online, which is done in some form in most states. He said an establishment’s health inspection history is a good indicator of its ability to abide by enhanced protocols meant to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

“I think that the kinds of hygiene problems that lead to violations of standard food safety rules are the same that would allow COVID to spread,” Hanson said.

Lisa Silva, who oversees Maine’s health inspection program, blamed Computer Aid Inc., the Pennsylvania contractor hired by the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage, for failing to deliver on a contract to update the state’s database. A representative for Computer Aid did not response to an interview request.

The state recently hired a different contractor to update the database, Silva said, but that work is limited to addressing “bug fixes” and “other enhancements to meet operational needs.”

Silva said she was not available for an interview and requested questions in writing. She did not answer most of them.

“Online posting of inspections remains a goal for the program,” she said.

Restaurant inspections are public records, and restaurants are supposed to provide them to patrons upon request. The state is also required to provide copies, but Silva said her staff was too busy dealing with the coronavirus to provide copies of failed inspections to the Press Herald.

Rep. Janice Cooper, a Yarmouth Democrat who proposed measures to beef up inspection programs in 2015, wasn’t surprised the state didn’t follow through on its plans, since it wasn’t required by law and LePage was “hostile” to any expansion of government, including adding more health inspectors. She hopes that Mills will push to have the inspections posted online.

“Now that were fighting COVID-19 it should be” on the governor’s radar,” Cooper said.

Restaurant inspections cover a wide array of areas, from food storage, handling and preparation to overall cleanliness, including hand-washing practices.

A restaurant can fail its inspection for a variety of reasons, some more serious than others. A critical violation is defined as a probable health risk or something likely to pose a risk for contamination or illness, including not storing food at proper temperatures.

A restaurant can have as many as 13 violations, including three or fewer critical ones, and pass inspection. A restaurant with more than three critical violations, or more than 10 non-critical violations, fails but may stay open if enough violations can be corrected immediately. If the violations present a public health hazard, the restaurant is closed until the problems are corrected.

According to a summary report of restaurants that failed inspections in 2018 and 2019, 325 restaurants failed their health inspections and 84 establishments did not have a certified food protection manager who is tasked with ensuring that a restaurant is in compliance with local food codes.

The Press Herald is not publishing the names of any of the restaurants because the state was unable to provide copies of the failed inspection reports or follow-up inspections that would show whether an establishment corrected the violations. And dining rooms have been closed for two months, giving restaurants time to catch-up on deferred maintenance and cleaning.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 2013 revealed the lack of public access to restaurant inspections. Maine is among the few states that doesn’t post any state or countywide inspections reports, or major health violations, online. Portland began posting its restaurant inspections online in 2013, after a series of Press Herald reports over health concerns.

Restaurant inspections are available in many states, including New Hampshire and Vermont. Cities such as New York and Los Angeles require restaurants to post grades in their windows.

In response to the Press Herald’s coverage, Nancy Beardsley, who oversaw the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s environmental health program in 2015, told the Press Herald that the state was close to finalizing a contract with a vendor to update its database, allowing for easier posting of inspections online.

“The public has been asking for that and we want to be able to provide that,” Beardsley said in 2015.

Silva said in an email this week that having online inspections is still the state’s goal, but she did not offer a timeline for doing so.

“We continue to work towards online posting but this has been somewhat stalled as we are responding to COVID-19,” she said.

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