Fined Dining - Small businesses feel 'harassed' by inspections

Team 12 Investigates found that at least 5,000 restaurants have closed during the pandemic. Our investigation also revealed that the same issues weren't exclusive to hospitality.

News 12 Staff

Apr 20, 2021, 2:00 PM

Updated 1,090 days ago

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In our Team 12 Investigates report "Fined Dining" we exposed disorganization in New York City's COVID inspection process, and the negative impacts those inspections are having on small businesses across the boroughs.
We found that at least 5,000 restaurants have closed during the pandemic. Our investigation also revealed that the same issues weren't exclusive to hospitality.
BATTLING THE DOB
During our investigation, we uncovered that 14 city agencies are authorized to perform COVID-related inspections. The Department of Buildings, we found, has conducted the most COVID-related small business inspections during the period of Oct. 6 to Dec. 3rd when you exclude those issued for outdoor dining. You can see the data detailing how many inspections were handed down, and sort them by zip code. 
The de Blasio administration tells us that the DOB’s numbers reflect the fact that it has the most resources behind it and was able to lend more officers to perform the inspections. After speaking with dozens of small businesses, we noticed a trend of miscommunication between businesses and the agencies inspecting them -- particularly during visits with the DOB.
Anarchy Tattoo Studios in the Bronx was hit with two fines on the same day, both for the same reasons. 
Both inspections were caught on surveillance video. You can watch the full video here.
In the video, exclusively obtained by Team 12 Investigates, you see an inspector asking the owner of the tattoo shop about his cleaning logs. The first $1,000 fine he received was for lack of having these logs and for not having social distancing markers on the ground, among other charges. Later that same day, another inspector arrived and issued another $1,000 fine for the same infractions. 
When News 12's cameras visited the shop, the owner was able to show that he had the aforementioned cleaning logs. The social distancing markers are also clearly visible in the surveillance video during the inspection.
The city tells News 12 that their policy is not to issue fines, but rather to instruct businesses on how to fix the problem before they take further action. The violations handed to Anarchy Tattoo's Studios contradict these claims.
We've heard countless reports from mom and pops telling us about conflicting rules between city agencies that come to perform COVID inspections. Along Kings Highway in Brooklyn, the co-owner of Scott Jewelers detailed his experience with city COVID inspections at a time when his store was in the middle of COVID-19 designated red zone, or hot spot. At times, he says he received multiple inspections on the same day.  Many times he said he'd gotten different instructions from different agencies about how to comply with quickly changing guidelines.
To prove these claims, Team 12 Investigates filed 42 Freedom of Information (FOIL) Requests with each of the 14 agencies. We asked each one what rules they were following during the times of these inspections to see if each agency was using the same inspection criteria. We have yet to hear back from every agency that we’ve requested information from. Many of our requests were intercepted by City Hall, which repeatedly asked News 12 to revoke its FOIL requests in exchange for data accumulated by the mayor's office. We were told our requests for information were "a waste of taxpayer dollars."
We uncovered information that shows that the most violations were handed down in Brooklyn, then Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island during the period of Oct. 6 to Dec. 3. We were also able to obtain a breakdown of non-compliance violations by infraction, and a complete list of non-restaurant violations by zip code.  
The Mayor's office pointed to 311 and the Small Businesses Services (SBS) hotline (888) SBS-4NYC for small businesses who have questions about state rules, as well as the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) for any violations they'd like to dispute.
In a statement to Team 12 Investigates, a spokesperson for the mayor's office added:
“The City has made every effort to comply with state law, protect employees and shoppers, and help businesses understand the rules that affect them. The past year has posed dramatic, unprecedented challenges. But the vast majority of businesses answered the call and stood up for what’s right: keeping their fellow New Yorkers safe and beating back COVID-19 once and for all.”
Text and reporting by Sabrina Franza.  Follow her on Twitter.


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