LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — If you wanted to know whether a restaurant has had roaches, rats, or other less than appetizing conditions, there’s usually a health inspection report readily available through the county the business is located in.
However, it’s not as easy to find information on whether a restaurant has had any COVID-19 cases. In Orange County, details on confirmed coronavirus cases at businesses are not published publicly through the county’s Health Care Agency, but one resident is hoping to change that.
Eva O’Keefe started an online petition demanding the Orange County Health Care Agency publish a list of restaurants with confirmed COVID-19 cases. “The county lets us know whether we have a roach infestation, or whether we have e-coli, or salmonella. I mean, it should not be any different," she said.
O’Keefe says transparency will help with customers who like to go out to eat, to feel safe about visiting their favorite restaurants, diners, and cafes. “I want restaurants to thrive and survive,” she said.
Before the pandemic, she was a frequent patron of restaurants in the county. O’Keefe works in sales and says she likes to meet clients at restaurants. She also likes to eat out with her family.
O’Keefe hopes to return to many of her local spots, but says during the pandemic, she wants any and all information that’s available through an official source, like the Orange County Health Care Agency. Rright now, O’Keefe has to rely on sites like Facebook, Yelp, and Instagram to check whether a restaurant has any current staff members who have tested positive.
“That’s not the way it should be. I shouldn’t be going to social media,” she said.
Marc Meulman, Acting Director of Public Health Services with the Orange County Health Care Agency, wrote the following statement in an email:
“The O.C. Health Care Agency has not closed any restaurants due to COVID-19. Some restaurants have closed on their own due to infections in their workforce and some have consulted with HCA but others have not, therefore HCA is not necessarily aware of all such situations. If HCA identifies a situation, in a restaurant or any other location, that puts the people of OC at elevated risk then HCA will take appropriate action, including public notifications, if appropriate. HCA is not publicly posting a list of facilities with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 as COVID-19 transmission is widespread in our community and risk should be assumed at all locations. Posting a list would send an incorrect message suggesting that there is elevated risk associated with a facility on the list and if a facility is not on the list the risk is lower. That is not accurate as restaurants, as well as other businesses, have members of the community coming and going each day and given the widespread transmission in the community, it is likely that exposures occur daily that are never identified or known. Additionally, any facility, restaurant or otherwise, seeking guidance is a good thing and demonstrates a commitment to protecting their workforce and the public. Posting a list of facilities/restaurants that seek appropriate guidance is a disincentive to taking appropriate action and discourages facilities to reach out to the HCA for guidance and collaboration.”
O’Keefe said assuming the virus is everywhere is a “simplistic view.” She also added, “This is a public health crisis, it should be treated like a public health crisis, and other counties are doing it.”
Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health does publish a list of businesses with confirmed covid-19 cases – including restaurants. According to the county’s website, the list is changed based on daily information gathered by public health investigators. The department also says the information on the list may not reflect real-time investigation counts.
San Diego county also publishes a generic list but does not list the name of the business, but rather just the type of business with confirmed cases.
O’Keefe is continuing to collect signatures and when she reaches at least 2,000, she plans to write an email to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
O’Keefe will also send a list of the signatures on the petition. She’s hopeful county officials will take her petition and the concerns of those who signed it seriously. The activist hopes they follow-up by publishing pandemic-related information about restaurants.