The Prince George's County health department has a policy, contrary to Maryland regulations, of allowing unsanitary restaurants to remain open until they repeatedly fall below acceptable state-mandated sanitation scores.
Unlike inspectors in the District and other Maryland jurisdictions, who say they automatically shut down restaurants that do not meet minimum scores, Prince George's inspectors cajole, threaten and compliment owners until inspection scores slowly improve.
The department's enforcement of the sanitary code was recently criticized in a county audit. Though they did not address specifically the issue of when a restaurant should be ordered closed, auditors concluded that the department's "corrective action process was often ineffective in alleviating the health hazards identified . . . ."
La Scala, a Suitland restaurant frequented by county politicians, is an example of how Prince George's inspectors prefer to handle a violator. Over the last four years, according to health department records, health inspectors visited La Scala 27 times. Inspectors found, among other things, evidence of rats and roaches on the premises on six different occasions. They also cited the restaurant on other occasions for keeping cold food too warm and hot food too cool. On eight of the 27 visits, the restaurant received inspection scores below the state's "acceptable" rating of 85 on a scale of 0 to 100.
On Sept. 27, 1979, inspectors gave La Scala a score of 63, seven points below the score where a restaurant should be closed according to state regulations. On a follow-up visit two weeks later, inspectors said most items were still uncorrected and gave La Scala a score of 70. Inspectors then called an administrative hearing, at which the owner agreed to correct violations. In its most recent inspection, La Scala received an acceptable score of 91.
Health department officials believe they handled the situation at La Scala well, in line with a philosophy of working with owners to help them comply. "Our only goal is to get them to clean up their act," said Alan Taylor, chief of the department's inspection staff known as the food control division, "and the records show that most of them do that."
Explaining why LaScala was not closed, Dr. Helen McAllister, health department chief, said, "We do not take aggressive action with one incident that is not a major health violation. We simply don't do that."
It is an approach owners appreciate. "They can run into violations for years," says John Lally, an attorney who has represented several county restaurants in their dealings with the department. "It's like running up a greasy mountain trying to get [restaurants] to comply."
La Scala owner David Star said he has "no problems with the health department. They visit two or three times a year. If there's a violation, there's a violation. I fix it." Of the problems associated with the score of 63, Star said, "They were problems and I fixed [them.] [Health inspectors] did their job and they were right."
Maryland health regulations state, "When the corrected rating score of the facility is less than 70, the permit shall be suspended automatically and the facility shall immediately cease food service operations." The law further states that "the food service facility may not remain in operation when the corrected rating score is below 70."
A corrected score is the number of points finally assigned to a restaurant once the owner has a chance to make any corrections he can following the inspection tour.
Other nearby jurisdictions, which have similar sanitation rating systems, apply them more strictly. The District, for example, usually orders a facility with a failing score closed immediately. "In order to get below 70 [in the District], you have to have a bad place," says Dr. Herbert Wood, deputy chief of the District's office of environmental services.
Automatic shutdown is also the practice in other Maryland counties, according to David L. Resh, program administrator of the state's community health management program that advises county health departments.
Resh says while others may disagree, he has had "many years in the health field and I would not have any difficulty in showing an imminent health hazard on a score of less than 70." Though the state writes the standards that counties are supposed to follow, he does not have the authority to order a county to adhere to state regulations, he said.
In their report released last month covering 152 out of 2,000 food facilities, county auditors said health officials had not inspected some facilities semiannually as required, did not have an adequate system for keeping track of expired permits and did not have a reliable method of confirming that serious violations had been corrected. (Health department officials also told The Post they could not say, at any one time, how many facilities were operating under less-than-acceptable scores.)
Health officials responding to the audit said that many recommendations were already in force at the time of its release. Officials also said their follow-up procedures are adequate, and that many enforcement powers attributed to them are within the province of other agencies.
Auditors found that, of the 152 facilities, 26 had not been inspected even once over a six-month period. Half of these were restaurants, and the remaining included a catering service, a candy store, an ice cream parlor, and a wholesale distributor.
According to a Post review of the 13 cases, the restaurants had not been inspected for a period of seven to nine months, largely in 1981. For some, the long hiatus had little effect on the quality of their housekeeping. But at others, inspection scores noticeable declined when inspectors stayed away. At the Harvest House restaurant in Woolworth's at Landover Mall, for example, an inspector wrote a score of 97 in July 1982, suggesting only that managers provide shields over lights fixtures, a protection against insect infestation. Seven months later, the restaurant received a score of 83. Managers were told to exterminate for roaches and to throw out cooked chicken and hot dogs that had been stored at improperly low temperatures.
Health official Taylor suggested that the law requiring semiannual inspections only means facilities should be inspected twice a year. "Rather than let go a bad place, you let go a good place," he said. "The important thing is to get in two a year."
None of the 13 restaurants where follow-up inspections lagged got a score below 70 for the period of the audit, though seven fell below 85 a total of 10 times.
Of six other restaurants The Post reviewed going back to 1979, three received scores below 85 a total of 21 times. Two--La Scala and Chasons, Ltd., in Camp Springs (now under different management and renamed Joe Theismann's)--received scores below 70 but were not closed down.
Chason's had a score of 65, after a Jan. 24, 1980 inspection, where the major violations included a clogged drain line in the refrigerator, which could allow contaminated water to seep into the food, and the absence of a hand sink in the food preparation area. Owners were given until March 10 to make their corrections. At the reinspection on that date, Chason's received a score of 89, with 14 of 49 violations remaining. The inspections improved markedly after that date, and have remained above or close to the acceptable range since the Joe Theismann's management took over in late 1981.
La Scala received a score of 63 after the Sept. 27, 1979 inspection revealed 39 violations, from roaches on the premises and employes smoking in the kitchen, to dirty floors in the kitchen. At a follow-up inspection at La Scala two weeks later, inspectors gave a score of 70 for some 60 violations, including mice droppings on the shelves, and unsanitized utensils.
Inspectors scheduled a hearing for Jan. 17, 1980, but it was canceled, according to inspection records, when Star agreed to make improvements. Though records indicate that most of the violations were corrected at a follow-up inspection Jan. 30, some violations persisted until October 1980, when La Scala received another uncorrected score of 60, and another hearing was held. Throughout 1981 and 1982, the scores slowly climbed back into the acceptable range.
Of the violations, Star said, "I did have a problem with my kitchen help, and some construction problems."