San Franciscans can now more easily find out if their favorite restaurants also cater to rats. Starting late last month, city health inspectors began wielding closure notice forms, posting them to the doors of food facilities they shutter because of imminent health risks.
Posting closure notices is a part of a push by the San Francisco Health Commission to make restaurant inspections more transparent and accessible to the public, and comes in advance of changes to the system that the commission’s president, James Illig, intends to propose on Tuesday.
Among Illig’s recommendations are an overhaul of the Department of Public Health’s website, to allow residents to easily view inspection scores and reports for all city restaurants; a requirement that restaurants post their most recent inspection scores in plain view; and a framework for increased oversight over departmental operations.
Illig also intends to support the department’s push to fill inspector positions that have been vacant for months.
Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco’s director of occupational and environmental health, said last month that five vacancies had contributed to the department’s inability to meet its mandate of routinely inspecting each city restaurant twice a year. Currently there are four open positions, and three have been approved by the city for rehire. Interviews for those positions begin this week.
Though posting closure notices is a significant step toward providing a greater degree of transparency about why a restaurant has been closed — previously no notice was posted, and restaurants sometimes put up signs saying they were closed for renovations — it’s still too early to tell the impact it will have on public perception.
Closure Notices Posted Around Town
Since inspectors began carrying the notices, eight restaurants have been closed around the city, including three in the Mission.
Creations Dessert, a popular confection destination in the Richmond District, was one of the most recent closures. Formerly called Hui Lau Shan, its offerings are inspired by sweets typically found in Hong Kong. On October 5, inspectors found seven violations, including two high-risk ones. The presence of rats prompted the closure.
“I don’t deny we lacked cleaning, so we have to do more cleaning,” said Justin Yang, Creations Dessert’s manager. “I agree with the health department to do this, but I’d rather not close the door.”
The health inspector taped a sign on Creations’ door announcing the closure, which stayed posted for the one day it took the dessert shop to rid itself of rats, clean its facilities and receive the health department’s approval to reopen.
Yang said that he understood the department’s policies and recognized that he needed to a do a better job of maintaining the store, but he questioned the need for the closure notice.
Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, supports the new posting policy.
“A health inspector would not issue a closure notice unless it were a public safety issue,” he said. “And if the restaurant did not respond to multiple infractions, they’ve dug their own grave.”
Not everyone seems to have noticed the changes in the health department’s practices. Bob Canizales, a postal carrier who has walked the stretch of Geary Street where Creations Dessert is located every day for 20 years, said he had no clue the sweet shop was closed for health code violations.
Several passersby outside El Porvenir market on 21st Street in the Mission last week were unaware that it was closed in late September for one day because of rodents. The market’s owner, Rayna Garcia, said the closure was unfair.
She said that one rat was found in her store, which she blamed on neighbors in the apartment complex upstairs who moved and dumped unwanted materials on the sidewalk. It did not reflect on how she maintains her facility, she added.
“The store is not nice, but it’s clean,” said Garcia, echoing a the sentiments of other restaurant owners who see the restaurant inspection policy as unfair and arbitrary.
Information about inspections is currently available on the Department of Public Health’s website, but as Illig pointed out during a recent Health Commission meeting, several surrounding counties make it easier for the public to access data.
Health agencies in San Mateo, Alameda and Marin counties all provide search functions on their websites for restaurants that have been closed for health violations. San Mateo even publishes a weekly list of closures on its site, though none of the three counties currently require that notices be posted at the physical locations.
When asked why San Mateo County does not post notices at the restaurants themselves, Dean Peterson, director of environmental health, replied, “As long as the restaurant is closed and public health is protected, we’re doing our job.”
The county has received positive feedback that the public is getting valuable information from its website, Peterson said.