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Posted: December 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Area restaurants receive low health scores

Businesses struggle with new, stricter health inspection rules

In the last month a number of popular restaurants in Covington have received very low scores from the Newton County Health Department.

One venue - Stalvey's Restaurant - even went so far as to briefly close its doors in order to address health code violations.

Stalvey's voluntarily closed its doors at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday after receiving a health inspection score of 31 and reopened at 2 p.m. on Thursday with a new score of 93 said restaurant owner Jim Stalvey, whose family owns several popular restaurants in the county including Butcher Block Deli and Jimbo's Grill at the Mill.

"At no time were any of my customers put in any sort of danger by any type of food borne [illness]. I have been in Covington for 35 years and I have never had a product liability claim," Stalvey said.

Other local restaurants that have received especially low scores in the last 30 days include Mamie's on U.S. Highway 278 with a score of 36, Nagoya with a score of 49, the Waffle House at 6137 U.S. Highway 278 with a score of 52, Pippins with a score of 58, Little Phillies with a score of 62, Burge Plantation with a score of 63, Mickey Dee's with a score of 65 and GG's Pizza & Wings with a score of 66.

Those restaurants that received the above low scores and asked to be retested the next day all received much higher scores from the 90s to 100.

Nearly a year after new state food service regulations took effect, some local eateries are still clearly struggling to get used to the stricter rules, which require among other things more monitoring of food temperatures and freshness and detailed procedures for employee hand washing and the wearing of gloves when there is skin contact with food.

Most of the violations that low scoring restaurants were faulted for were for various minor items that all added up to a poor score, such as storing cooking oil on the floor rather than 6 inches off of the ground, having various food temperatures off by a couple of degrees, employees not washing their hands between glove changes and employees handling raw food then touching clean plates without washing their hands first.

According to Vernon Goins, public information officer for the East Metro Health District which includes Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties, there is no low number that results in the automatic closure of a restaurant. State regulations authorize the closure of a restaurant for "repeat and/or flagrant violations as well as when conditions exist that constitute an imminent health hazard."

Restaurants that earn a letter grade of ‘U,' which is any score below 70, have to earn a ‘C' or better within 10 days or close. For a restaurant to be reopened after closure, they must contact the Newton County Health Department for a re-inspection and then achieve a satisfactory assessment.

"Initially we did see an increase in closures statewide, but after the first round of inspections, we have seen a steady increase in scores and thus a decrease in closures, as was expected," said Goins of how restaurants have adapted to the new stricter health regulations.

Stalvey said he made the decision to close his restaurant for the night in order to give his staff time to address a number of things that had been put off due to the holiday season rush.

"It's an old building. The backdoor needed repair, the cooler door needed some repair, the tile has a few missing pieces here and there," Stalvey said, adding that health inspectors also said three new hand sinks needed to be added.

Stalvey said some of his older employees have had trouble remembering the new regulations regarding the wearing of hand gloves, which require employees to wash their hands in between putting on new pairs of gloves.

"It's very hard for people that's older people to understand these regulations. It can get confusing and [the health inspectors are] standing there watching you for four hours and they can get a little nervous," he said, adding "You're going to see a lot of low scores because these new regulations are very hard to understand and it's very easy to get caught."

Stalvey said he had no problem with the way the health inspectors conducted their inspection saying that they were fair.

"As long as they're that way with me and everybody has to follow the same rules I can live with that," he said.

Goins said the East Metro Health District is in the process of aligning its policies with those of the state's in preparation for a July merger with the Department of Community Health that will form the Georgia Department of Health, pending approval of the General Assembly.

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