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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Owner Callie Meta, left, rings up a to-go order at Olive Branch on Thursday, April 23, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Itճ been a little over a month since the Hamilton County Health Department issued a statement noting that it would suspend its routine inspections of area restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Environmental Health Director Bonnie Deakins said her department has had only a couple of complaints from patrons alleging that some restaurants were not following some recommended policies regarding how to safety get food to people.

It's been over a month since the Hamilton County Health Department issued a statement noting that it would suspend its routine inspections of area restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Environmental Health Director Bonnie Deakins said her department has had only a couple of complaints from patrons alleging that restaurants were not following some recommended policies regarding how to safely get food to people.

"Everyone has been cooperative," she said.

"We've had only a few complaints, and we've been working those complaints. They've mostly been complaints that social distancing was not being observed, and we've contacted those owners and managers, and it's been taken care of."

(READ MORE: Your guide to Chattanooga-area takeout and delivery options amid coronavirus pandemic)

Deakins oversees a department with an annual budget of around $750,000 and staff of seven inspectors. In normal times, they handle proactive inspections of area restaurants and commercial kitchens.

Deakins said the inspections were suspended so that her staff could assist in the health department's emergency response cases as needed.

"It was a human manpower decision," she said. "They are doing contact tracing with people who have tested positive for the virus. They make contact and do interviews and continue following the case."

Health Department Hotline

To report an issue related to a restaurant, call the Health Department Hotline at 423-209-8383.

While dine-in service has been suspended and many restaurants have gone to takeout, curbside or deliver-only options, Deakins said many safety requirements that were in place before the pandemic are still in place. For example, employees are required to wear gloves only if they actually handle "ready-to-eat food like putting lettuce or tomatoes on a sandwich. Then you have to wear gloves."

She said many restaurants have chosen to have employees who hand food to customers also wear gloves, and even masks, though neither is required.

"All we've asked is that if customers pick up food at the counter, they respect the six-foot distance recommendation. That is still the national guidance and we've seen no instances of the virus being transmitted through food or food packages from restaurants."

Deakins said that while it might seem confusing to some customers to visit one restaurant which has employees wearing masks and gloves and then visit another where they are not, it is a decision the owners and managers make on their own. She also said she believes the six-foot social distancing guideline could remain in place even after restaurants are able to reopen in full.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Owner Callie Meta, right, hands Randall Cook back his card after sanitizing it at Olive Branch on Thursday, April 23, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Itճ been a little over a month since the Hamilton County Health Department issued a statement noting that it would suspend its routine inspections of area restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Environmental Health Director Bonnie Deakins said her department has had only a couple of complaints from patrons alleging that some restaurants were not following some recommended policies regarding how to safety get food to people.

"The biggest thing is the social distancing measure. I definitely think restaurants will continue to do that after this. They know that it is good business."

Deakins said she doesn't know when the restaurant inspections will begin again, but added that she anticipates that restaurants could be limited to no more than 10 people dining in at a time when things start opening back up.

"I think we will be doing a lot of these same things for some time."

Rick Mayo, co-owner of Mayo's Clinic restaurant in Brainerd, said his staff might wear masks and he'd prefer to be wearing a different type of protective glove when preparing and handling food, but he can't find either.

"I can't find the masks," he said. "We are wearing food prep gloves, but they are hard to work in. I prefer the surgical kind you get at Sam's, but they don't have them."

He said that nearly all of the drivers with services such as Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash have been wearing masks and gloves.

"Everybody seems to be trying very hard to do the right thing," Mayo said.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Randall Cook leaves Olive Branch with his takeout order on Thursday, April 23, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Itճ been a little over a month since the Hamilton County Health Department issued a statement noting that it would suspend its routine inspections of area restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Environmental Health Director Bonnie Deakins said her department has had only a couple of complaints from patrons alleging that some restaurants were not following some recommended policies regarding how to safety get food to people.

Mayo also said he has been pleasantly surprised at how many people have supported the restaurant through takeout and delivery.

(READ MORE: COVID-19 forces Chattanooga restaurants to cut staff, make tough decisions)

"It's been better than I could have hoped."

Olive Branch owner Callie Meta said she wears gloves and keeps a mask, which she sometimes wears.

"People can't hear me, so I take it off, but I keep it around my neck and wear it sometimes. One thing I always do is wipe a customer's credit card before I give it back."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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