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What to do if you see people breaking rules at restaurants

So what do you do if you spot something wrong? We spoke with health and food industry experts and restaurant owners to help figure out how to think about it.

What should you do if you see someone breaking the rules at a restaurant?
What should you do if you see someone breaking the rules at a restaurant?Read moreCynthia Greer

We’re in the middle of a public health crisis. In fighting the spread of the coronavirus, we all have a role to play. But does that role include calling out restaurants that aren’t following the rules?

It’s complicated. Restaurants are struggling, and it’s not cut and dry when we should be the ones to police them, which, in a worst-case scenario, could put them out of business.

Nearly one in six restaurants — close to 100,000 nationwide — has closed since March, according to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association. Restaurants that remain open are fighting daily to survive, trying to make operations work with less manpower, while rarely breaking even. They have a new list of ever-evolving protocols to follow, and often it falls on the servers to enforce them and keep everyone safe.

Yet, we’re dealing with a public health crisis. If not careful, mistakes could lead to repercussions far beyond the restaurant. And if coronavirus cases spiral out of control, the whole industry could be forced to shut back down.

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So what do you do if you spot something wrong? We spoke with health and food industry experts and restaurant owners to help figure out how to think about it.

Speak to a manager first.

If there’s a problem, the majority of restaurants want to resolve it. And the quickest way to getting it fixed is raising concerns directly with a manager or owner. If you can’t find one, speak with your server.

“We’re both on the same team. None of us want to get sick, so if we’re missing a step, which can obviously happen with so many moving parts, it’d be great if someone gave us a heads up,” says Shawn Darragh, co-owner of Cheu, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and Nunu. “Otherwise, you drive home, call 311, sit on hold, and then the inspector has to come out. Whatever you think we’re doing that’s unsafe could’ve been ended much quicker.”

If there’s a situation where you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in person, reach out through email or social media.

“I’ve gotten incredible feedback and insight this way,” says Jackson Fu, co-owner of Dim Sum House by Jane G’s. “The magnitude can be serious or slight. These are the moments where you can really help the operator."

Consider that you might be wrong.

When dining at a restaurant, you can always speak up if you feel uncomfortable. But make sure you know what the actual rules and regulations are. These vary from state to state, and often city to city.

“Most people don’t walk around with a tape measure. When things are six feet apart, it might be compliant but not look that way,” says Jonathan Deutsch, a professor in Drexel University’s food and hospitality management department. “There’s nothing more frustrating when you’re doing everything right, and are already putting yourself and staff at risk, and then you have to put out a fire on social media or explain a situation when nothing was actually wrong.”

Is it the restaurant’s fault or the guests'?

If a restaurant isn’t following the rules, it could be a careless oversight. On occasion, it might be intentional. Other times, it’s not the restaurant’s fault at all.

Unruly guests aren’t easy to control. It’s also hard for staff to watch guests' every move, especially when juggling extra pandemic responsibilities, like nonstop sanitizing, on a team that’s already short-staffed. It creates an environment that’s ripe for slipups.

“It’s a hard position for a restaurant to be responsible for guest behavior, especially after alcohol is in the mix,” says Deutsch.

Unfortunately, going anywhere right now doesn’t come without risk. You can’t control everyone else in every situation. And getting angry with a restaurant isn’t going to solve that.

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Praise publicly, criticize privately.

“Restaurants need our patience right now, and we should be publicly celebrating restaurants who are doing a great job,” says Deutsch. “For those causing concern, we should express that to restaurants directly so they can focus on fixing problems rather than undoing damage from public reviews.”

Give the restaurant a chance to fix mistakes before calling them out on Yelp or Facebook. Their livelihood may depend on it.

“Blame and shame is not going to help us,” says Ashley Z. Ritter, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and the chief clinical officer of Dear Pandemic, a collective of female researchers and clinicians who publish COVID-19 safety advice. “COVID makes dining difficult. Pointing blame at each other doesn’t change that fact.”

“It’s not like before where you could get a bad review, and move on,” says Darragh. “The customer pool isn’t that big anymore. And even with takeout, your competition is much higher now.”

Should you call 311?

Some experts say to look at 311 like an emergency hotline.

“You know when you really need to call, and you’re not going to think twice about it when it’s at that level,” says Deutsch.

A good example: A restaurant is flouting the rules, and the staff are, too.

Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health encourages you to speak up whenever you see something wrong, even if you’re just walking down the street and spot tables crammed together. Notify the restaurant directly when comfortable, they say, but otherwise, you can always call 311.

“We’re all working together to beat this,” says James Garrow, Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s director of communications. “Times are fraught and there are situations where either patrons or staff have reacted negatively to complaints, and we don’t want it to seem like the only recourse is to put yourself out there.”

What happens to a restaurant when you call 311?

Your complaint is redirected to the Office of Food Protection, who dispatches an inspector as soon as possible. If a restaurant is caught breaking COVID-19 rules, the inspector reminds them of the guidelines and requests that they be implemented immediately. If the restaurant refuses or is unable to comply, they’re shut down. A restaurant may also be shut down if an inspector is dispatched multiple times for the same violations. Follow-up inspections take place as soon as the restaurant indicates they’re ready.

COVID-19 guidelines are also included in routine restaurant inspections.

“The primary goal is for folks to be able to patronize safe food establishments,” says Garrow. “If it’s an honest mistake and we can work with the staff to make the situation safe, we want restaurants to stay open.”