CASPER, Wyo. – The Casper/Natrona County Health Department has been fielding dozens of complaints from citizens regarding COVID-19 compliance with restaurants.
Restaurants and bars started to reopen in early May with health guidelines after closing in March. Those guidelines require social distancing for patrons, masks and gloves worn by staff, sanitation efforts and limiting hours, among other things. They can be read here. The guidelines say business owners are responsible for enforcement.
In emails to Oil City News, C/NCHD spokesperson Hailey Bloom says the department receives “many, many complaints each day” from citizens with concerns.
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Complaints can be sent through a form online, by phone or in person. Bloom says each complaint is looked into by the department’s health inspectors.
The complaints are kept on file for five years, she says, and are public record. Oil City News was provided copies of complaints related to COVID health orders, with the names of people issuing the complaints redacted.
Most complaints made since restaurants in the county were allowed to reopen under COVID restrictions are for face mask compliance. Several restaurants and bars were named in various mask complaints, ranging from dine-in to fast food. Some hotel buffets, gas stations and grocery stores were also mentioned. Many were investigated by health inspectors who found employees to be in compliance.
A few other complaints involved customers observing a lack of sanitation measures and disregarding social distancing measures.
None have warranted serious action from the health department.
“Sometimes this is hard to determine (just as any complaint we get all year otherwise is) because it can be merely a snapshot in time,” said Bloom. “We always follow up with these facilities but sometimes it was just isolated, and that person is no longer doing the one specific thing, on shift, etc.”
Health inspectors did find non-compliance in some cases. Inspectors write notes on their reports of their discussions with management, which often consists of education of the new guidelines.
With buffets, the situation has been more complicated.
Buffets have been banned under state COVID health orders and most have remained closed. According to the order, “no self-serve food service or buffet options shall be available unless food is pre-packaged; drink refills are not allowed in the same containers.”
Two buffets have reopened in Casper. They are the Hibachi Supreme Buffet specializing in Asian food in the Eastridge Mall, and Pizza Ranch on Casper’s east side.
Bloom says there have been no variances for buffets issued in the county, but the health department will work with managers to adopt safe procedures.
She says this is the case of Hibachi. Their buffet is no longer directly accessible by customers, and instead is only accessible by staff, who then serve customers standing nearby. An Oil City News reporter was able to observe the process, and no complaints have been filed so far with the health department.
Bloom says the department worked with Pizza Ranch to reopen their buffet but still stay in compliance with health orders.
However, since then two separate complaints received by the health department raised concern among health inspectors over Pizza Ranch’s operation.
One document says a tipster “called today very upset about Pizza Ranch having their buffet open to the public. He turned around and left due to that.”
Another complaint said “Pizza Ranch is not doing contactless buffet anymore and people are sitting at tables marked for ‘no seating.'”
An Oil City News reporter observed the restaurant on two separate occasions and witnessed customers self-serving at the buffet during the lunch rush, and customers also lined up less than the required six feet apart at the inside entrance waiting to pay for the buffet. Staff, however, appeared to be following health guidelines by wearing masks and gloves, and tables were socially distanced.
According to the health department’s record, in late June an inspector talked with general manager, Lon Lack, who said “he was under ‘other direction’ but would not tell me who gave him said direction.” The inspector also noted Lack said, “I need to ‘respect him and he’ll respect me.'” When reached by phone Lack deferred comment to Pizza Ranch’s corporate office.
Ryan Achterhoff, Chief Administrator Officer of Pizza Ranch in Iowa, said during a phone interview that he was “shocked” to hear about complaints to the health department in Casper.
“We have established new procedures and protocols to provide a safe environment for our guests in all of our Pizza Ranches chainwide,” he said.
He said the chain provides social distancing and sanitation measures, and offers gloves for customers to serve themselves in all of its 214 locations in 14 states.
“We’ve only received really positive feedback from our guests in Casper, so this is kind of a surprise to me to hear this,” he said. “We’ve had an enormous amount of support related to what we’re doing.”
“People are very sensitive about this virus, and Wyoming has done a tremendous job controlling this and I think the numbers show that,” he continued.
Achterhoff said social distancing is key to their plan, which he said “has been so well received by health departments and governors that have approved our playbook because they agree.”
“You can question this part of it but the CDC has put out reports that show this virus does not pass that readily through surfaces,” he said.
In its guidelines for restauranteurs, the CDC says “avoid offering any self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets, salad bars, and drink stations.”
Achterhoff says Pizza Ranch staff regularly swaps out utensils, and that customers “can actually serve themselves faster than they can by telling someone to serve them,” thus reducing time mingling.
However, Casper/Natrona County Health Department spokesperson Hailey Bloom says the Pizza Ranch buffet model does not comply with health orders. She says health experts say the virus can travel from utensils that have been touched by an infected person who may have sneezed, coughed or touched their face, and then transmitted to the next person’s hands as they self-serve their food.
“Our health inspectors have been in contact with the facility and discussed the orders and the requirement, as well as its importance in limiting exposure in our community,” she said by email. “Currently, our team here including health inspectors, doctors, and law enforcement are discussing next steps and are diligently working to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”
Bloom says the health department can take further measures after multiple complaints or if problems go unresolved.
“After multiple complaints on the same facility and for recurring things, we have started to send a letter to the owner from our County Health Officers outlining these complaints and how they are not complying with the statewide orders and how that affects the community as a whole,” she said by email.
“We also send a copy of that letter to the State Health Officer and place a copy in their environmental health file here at the department if they are normally inspected by us (ie: restaurants, bars, daycares, etc.).”
The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:
What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.
If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.
Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.
For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
- Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.