City Council approves new disclosure of restaurant health violations

Baltimore-based restaurants to post information about health violations, under proposal set to be approved Mon

People dining out in Baltimore will have new access to information about health violations at city restaurants and carryouts under legislation approved Monday by the City Council.

Under the legislation, patrons will be able to check the Health Department's website and social media accounts for timely updates on restaurant violations, such as rat infestations or failures to keep meat cool.

The measure also requires restaurants to post notices — that can easily be seen by passersby — that explain why an establishment is closed.

"This is a huge win for transparency and for the citizens," said Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who sponsored the measure.

The council approved the bill unanimously, without discussion. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supports the bill and is expected to sign it into law, said her spokesman, Howard Libit.

Its approval caps a long campaign by Scott to help the public learn more about the cleanliness of city restaurants.

He first introduced legislation in 2012 to require restaurants to post grades based on health inspections. After a series of committee hearings that failed to draw a quorum, the bill made it to the full council, only to be defeated by a single vote amid protest from the restaurant industry.

While the Restaurant Association of Maryland has not taken a position on the latest bill, some restaurant owners and business advocacy groups support the concept.

Ann Costlow, who owns Sofi's Crepes, agrees with Scott's latest approach. She had spoken out against the earlier proposal, saying she preferred giving the public direct access to the Health Department's reports rather than just a grade.

"People want to know the cleanliness and safety of the restaurants they eat at, and I think it's important they have access to that," she said.

William H. Cole IV, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the Health Department already has the information covered by the bill.

"Providing consumers with easily accessible and digestible information about the sanitary condition of the food service facilities they patronize is a wise idea," Cole wrote in a letter to the council supporting the legislation. "The bill protects consumers, encourages sanitary business practices, and supports government transparency."

The bill takes effect a month after the mayor signs it. It calls for information about restaurant closures to be updated on the Health Department's website at least weekly. The agency now posts online which restaurants are closed and for what reasons only about once a month.

Under the bill, the agency also is required to publicize on at least two social media sites that a restaurant's license has been suspended, revoked or not renewed.

Dr. Leana S. Wen, the city's health commissioner, said the agency will be working to develop procedures and practices to carry out the measure's requirements. She said the department must make sure the information is fair, accurate and easily accessible.

"We want to have the violations posted in real time, so people can make an informed decision about where they want to eat their meals or obtain their food items," Wen said. "We're still in the process of figuring out how the process will work. We really believe in making this user-friendly."

Wen said the Health Department is studying systems used by other cities, such as Washington and Boston. She said her department is trying to create a searchable database that offers full inspection reports online.

"We believe in full transparency, and we're entirely committed to this," Wen said. "We want to figure out this exact process in a thoughtful and deliberative way so our citizens are getting up-to-date and accurate information."

The agency is finalizing the sign that will be posted at the restaurants. The version Scott proposes is yellow with the words, "Closed by the order of the Baltimore City Health Department," and includes a space to describe the violation and the date.

Health inspectors have closed 40 of the city's 5,000 restaurants and carryouts so far this year. They typically shut down 100 a year.

Restaurants can reopen after a Health Department worker determines during a follow-up inspection that the problem has been corrected.

Scott said he was prompted to introduce the bill out of frustration. Restaurants haven't been required to post any explanation about health inspection closures. And, Scott said, some were hiding from customers the true reasons about their closures, posting signs such as "Closed for vacation."

He's been using his social media accounts to publicize closures and violations.

Scott introduced his latest proposal in April, shortly after the defeat of his bill to require restaurant grading. To make sure the new bill didn't get hung up in committee, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young took the usual step of sending it to the full council as a committee of the whole. The bill got that preliminary approval in June.

Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, said Scott's approach "seems reasonable." Ray said he hasn't heard from any restaurants in the North Baltimore neighborhood that have concerns about the legislation.

"When it comes to health and safety, the public has a right to know why these restaurants are closed in a timely manner," Ray said. "To me, that seems like information that should be made available to people."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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