Restaurant shutdowns: Are you being informed?

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Every Thursday on the Restaurant Report, we show you restaurants with critical violations on their health inspections. It may surprise you to learn that the Health Department temporarily shuts down about 230 restaurants across the state every year. That's because the Health Department says it doesn't usually include shutdown information on reports you can see. We went to investigate why.

Out of about 28,000 restaurants across the state, the Health Department temporarily shuts down about 230 a year.

"Suspension may last 2 hours, 30 minutes, 2 days, a week or longer. It depends on the nature of the problem and what is required to get it fixed," explained Gary Hagy, Director of the Health Department's Division of Food and Environmental Services.

The most common problems: no hot water, loss of refrigeration, pest infestations, sewage, and fires.

While the Health Department posts restaurant inspections on its website for you to see, it says it doesn't usually post information about having to shutdown a restaurant.

We asked Hagy whether that meant that the restaurants reputations were being protected over public health.

He replied, "No, because the restaurant was closed. If the restaurant is closed, the food is not being served. The consumer's health is being protected because there is no exposure to it."

To which we asked whether the public is protected if they're not made aware they may have eaten at a restaurant prior to the closure while the problem may have existed.

Hagy answered, "Again, depends on what the problem was. A lack of water, again, how long has it been out? Usually on something like that, we find out about it pretty quickly."

The Health Department says many shutdowns are because of water main breaks, power outages, or fires.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, we learned that Henrico County told ten restaurants in the Gayton Crossing shopping center to close in March until a water main break was fixed, which was two hours later. The County tells us that five of those restaurants had to be told to close twice before they finally closed.

The Health Department says if a restaurant voluntarily closes to fix problems, including exterminating roaches, rodents, or resolving other critical violations, it doesn't regularly record the voluntary shutdown.

"We don't track that information, no," said Hagy.

"Why not?" we asked.

"Again, we just haven't," responded Hagy. "Again it hasn't required us to do anything. We're not taking any action, and we haven't been tracking it."

"Are you planning to in the future?" we asked.

"It's one of the things we may look at, yes," Hagy said.

We found records of some voluntary shut downs on inspection reports in Central Virginia dating back to 2009 and 2010. The Richmond, Chesterfield, and Hanover Health Departments say they haven't had to shut down any restaurants in the last year.

The State Health Department says its considering making shutdown information accessible to the public on its website next year, when it revises its inspection process.

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