Fined Dining: Restaurant owners say they’re overwhelmed with city COVID inspections

At least 5,000 restaurants have closed across the five boroughs -- and Team 12 Investigates wanted to find out why.

News 12 Staff

Apr 15, 2021, 8:53 PM

Updated 1,194 days ago


Is the New York City COVID-19 inspection process killing small businesses?
At least 5,000 restaurants have closed across the five boroughs -- and Team 12 Investigates wanted to find out why.
Many small business owners say confusion over inspections, and mismanagement by city agencies, are a big part of their, big, small business problems. 
Team 12 Investigates contacted every single Business Improvement District across the Bronx and Brooklyn to find out what they think is causing so many mom and pops to shutter. 
We met dozens of business owners and learned about overwhelming confusion surrounding COVID-19 compliance inspections that some say are causing an uptick in unaffordable fines.
Ronny Jaramillo, who owns Bar Crudo in Park Slope, says the city is heavy-handed in its methods.
“The approach of the city was that well, you have 24 hours to get this done or we’re going to break it,” Says Jaramillo.  “Break it into pieces.”
When we learned that 14 city agencies are working to perform these inspections -- we decided to find out if each agency was inspecting by different rules during the time period of October 2020 to December 2020. We asked the city, filing 42 Freedom of Information Requests, how many restaurants were inspected by each agency and how many received fines. We also asked for the individual inspection criteria used by each agency during that time.
Most of our requests were intercepted by Mayor de Blasio's office, who called our requests "A waste of taxpayer dollars," and "a massive time suck," asking us to revoke our requests repeatedly. Our team refused to pull those requests, which have been delayed months.
NYC's "Open Restaurants" Program is a lifeline for restaurants across the city, especially during the time when indoor dining was forbidden. 
We found that the Department of Transportation was largely responsible for policing outdoor setups. At the start of the open restaurants program, News 12 obtained guidance from the NYPD confirming the DOT was tasked with ensuring participating restaurants complied with new program rules. 
Amid multiple reports about aggressive behavior and unnecessary summonses and fines, we dug deeper into how the DOT was treating outdoor setups.
Between Oct. 6 and Dec. 3, we found the DOT conducted 2,322 Open Restaurant inspections citywide. 
Data from the inspections shows 123 were found to be non-compliant, meaning the restaurant has 24 hours to fix the issue and they cannot operate until its fixed.
Data also shows 32 were given a cease-and-desist ORDERS to close immediately after the DOT deemed their setup too dangerous to function. 
The overwhelming amount of restaurants inspected were not given fines, though restaurant owners tell News 12 that the threat of those fines, the changing RULES, and the way the DOT conducts themselves during inspections is sometimes worse than the fines themselves. 
A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office issued a statement in response to our story, which reads:
“Complying with state law and keeping workers and patrons safe from COVID-19 has required a massive, months-long effort from hardworking public servants. From hotlines, to training sessions, to exhaustive outreach to business owners – all in multiple languages – we’ve made every effort to ensure small businesses have the tools they need to comply with safety regulations. As our economy reopens, New Yorkers should know that their favorite small businesses are ready to welcome them back safely.”

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