‘Big Gathering, No Masks:' Local Health Districts Field COVID-19 Complaints

Local health departments are responsible for enforcing the reopening rules for food establishments, salons, barbershops, clubs and tattoo parlors, according to an executive order.

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An executive order signed days before the state's first phase of reopening gives local health departments the regulatory authority to enforce various reopening rules at establishments they already regulate.

Health districts are the enforcing agency for hair salons, barbershops, beauty shops, nail salons, spas, tattoo or piercing establishments, restaurants, eating establishments, private clubs, or any locations licensed for on-premise consumption of alcohol, according to the order.

"On top of what we typically do on a regular day, we now have this additional enforcement authority, so it is getting a little bit more chaotic and a little bit more pressure put on us," said Katie Baldwin, supervisor of Regulated Facilities and Housing for Ledge Light Health District.

Baldwin estimates that the health district receives about 10 COVID-19 related complaints a day. She said that her team does their best to respond to complaints within 24 to 48 hours of receiving the complaint.

"We are just kind of rotating. As the complaints come in, they get assigned, inspected or taken care of one way or the other," said Baldwin.

Not all of the complaints that Ledge Light Health District receives are for establishments that they regulate. For example, if someone complains about people not wearing masks in a clothing store, LLHD would forward that complaint to the appropriate town and their enforcement agency.

The complaints made against establishments that the health district does regulate are gathered in a COVID-19 complaint log and responded to accordingly, according to Baldwin.

The complaints vary, but the most common are for people not wearing masks inside food establishments, people wearing masks incorrectly, no social distancing and big gatherings.

For example, the health district received a complaint about Ocean Pizza in New London, reporting that their employees were not wearing masks properly. Owner Sam Vafidis explained that they worked alongside the health department and they were thankful for their help.

"We actually, we know what to do now. They did that for a while and we know what to do now," said Vafidis.

The restaurant has hand sanitizer at several locations, distance markers throughout the restaurant and all employees were properly wearing masks when NBC Connecticut was there. Vafidis has owned the restaurant since 1962, when he was just a young teenager. He said that he has seen a lot and has adapted, but never anything like this.

"It is different," said Vafidis. "Our priority, first of all, is safety and then we have to feed the people and we will stay in business."

Baldwin said that their main goal is to educate business owners when they receive complaints.

"Education is a huge part of what we do," said Baldwin. "When we get those complaints we don't look at them as something bad. We look at it as an opportunity to educate and remind them what they should be doing."

Neighboring health department, Uncas Health District, has a similar education before enforcement approach.

"We are certainly going to get complaints. We are certainly going to be asked to go out and follow up with the business owners," explained Director of Health, Patrick McCormack. "Our expectation is that we are all learning together how to deal with this. It starts with the education piece first."

McCormack said in the first week his team has received complaints and conducted a handful of inspections. They created a COVID-19 specific inspection form that covers the basics like food safety and hygienic practices, but it also has sections to inspect factors like capacity, appropriate signage, floor markings, proper personal protective equipment and single-use menus.

"Generally what I will do is make a phone call first. We start a dialogue and then I tell them I am going to be out, we are going to take a look at things and see how things can be done better," McCormack said.

According to McCormack, Uncas Health District has not had to take any enforcement action at this point, reporting that the reopening has gone well so far. Ledge Light Health District has issued one order of closure.

With additional phases of reopening on the horizon, both health districts anticipate even more complaints and an even heavier workload.

"The health departments in general felt like we were challenged in terms of staffing and workload all the time, anyway, so it has certainly created a different level of work that we have to provide to our municipalities," said McCormack. "That being said, it is making sure we prioritize our work each day."

The health districts are reminding the public that if someone has a complaint about an establishment that the health districts do not regulate, like a retail store or a pharmacy, that person should file a complaint with 211.

"If you want to file a complaint that is related to a public health facility, we will absolutely accept the complaint and follow up, but the other ones we will have to forward to the proper enforcement authority," said Baldwin.

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