unnamed-3.jpg

Pima County Supervisors continues to grapple with restaurant regulations.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 this week to update health code regulations for restaurants and bars to reduce transmission of COVID-19, but three state lawmakers are asking the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to step in and force the county to rescind the rules.

State Sen. Vince Leach and state Reps. Mark Finchem and Bret Roberts say that the county is exceeding its authority in creating the regulations and have asked Attorney General Mark Brnovich for an investigation.

“We’ve seen throughout this crisis how important it is to balance health concerns with the need to reopen businesses and get Arizonans back to work,” Leach said in a prepared statement. “Gov. Ducey and the Legislature have been working with experts to find that balance and determine the best course of action for the entire state. Members of the county’s Back to Business Bars and Restaurants Task Force said that while they helped create guidelines and best practices, they didn’t think their recommendations would become regulations with fines attached.

“We offered to help be a part of this from the very beginning and now we’re the ones being targeted with fines,” said Ray Flores, owner of El Charro and its related restaurants. “If it’s really about public health and human safety, then all businesses should have to go through this. This is not a restaurant problem, this is a human population problem.”

The task force, which was composed of eight restaurant and bar owners as well as five county health department staff members, was organized late April with the job of crafting guidelines and best practices for bars and restaurants in the county. Among the recommendations: wellness and symptom checks; cloth masks and gloves to be worn by all staff; patrons exhibiting signs of COVID-19 are not permitted on-premises; and no more than 10 allowed per table, as well as no bar-top seating. 

Flores said not only was it disappointing to see such a highly regulated industry such as food service now be threatened with fines, but restaurateurs had to act as pseudo-healthcare workers with no training and very little guidance on how to proceed.

“Nobody in the restaurant business wants to make anyone sick,” Flores said.” At the same time, nobody in the restaurant business is a healthcare professional.”

One of the main regulations concerning task force members and restaurateurs alike is the requirement to take wellness/symptom checks of “all restaurant employees, vendors, contractors, third party delivery service workers as they arrive on-premises and before the opening of a restaurant.” 

Dan Bogert, COO of the Arizona Restaurant Association and a task force member, said he doesn’t disagree with temperature checks for restaurant employees. However, checking third-party delivery drivers can pose potential problems for restaurant operators, said Bogert.

Other requirements concerning task force members and restaurateurs are supplying staff with cloth masks and hand sanitizer when they are in short supply these days and the Pima County Health Department doesn’t have any to give reopening businesses. 

Dr. Bob England, director of the Pima County Health Department, clarified how the county health department would enforce the new guidelines approved by the Pima County Board of Supervisors in his video public health update on May 14.

“We are not going to have people sitting in the bushes while you eat,” England said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our registered sanitarians and others in the year I’ve been here, it’s that they want to help businesses do the right thing.”

Education and assistance will be the health department’s focus while the newregulations are in place, England said. The regulations will stay in place until the pandemic is declared over by Pima County’s chief medical officer, Dr. Francisco Garcia.

“Actual enforcement of any kind is going to be a last resort,” England said. “We want all of us to continue to do what we know we should to prevent transmission in this disease.”

The Pima County Board of Supervisors also adopted a set of temporary regulations to help restaurant owners in unincorporated Pima County expand their outside dining area while under new indoor occupancy restrictions during Wednesday’s emergency meeting. Parking spaces, sidewalks and vacant lots could be used as additional seating upon approval from Pima County Development Services.