DOH Should Help Not Hinder
“They make it impossible for us to have a business.” This summed up the frustration of Joe Santillo, owner and operator of Grand Avenue Pizza in Astoria, the community I represent in the state Assembly.
Mr. Santillo was explaining to me how the New York City Department of Health [DOH] recently fined him $1,400 for violating a new regulation that requires pizza with meat on top of it to be stored in a refrigerator.
Yes, it was frustrating that between the new, specialized refrigerator he had to buy and the demolition job he had to do on his doorway to get the equipment inside his small restaurant [to comply] with the DOH standard [it] cost him close to $10,000.
But the most maddening part for Mr. Santillo was that he was being fined for violating a regulation he didn’t even know existed.
Mr. Santillo’s complaint echoed the sentiments of restaurant owners I’ve spoken with throughout my district—people who work in good faith to maintain clean, sanitary establishments, but get hit with costly fines for infringing upon newly–imposed health regulations they were never made aware of.
This is not to say that these regulations shouldn’t exist. Public health is and should remain a top priority for all levels of government, and regulatory agencies should be able to set and enforce standards aimed at protecting the well-being of citizens.
But as it stands now, we have a system in which it seems that agencies are counting on proprietors of eating establishments not to be informed, so that they remain easy targets for revenue generating fines.
It’s true that information about restaurant regulations is generally available online, but anyone who knows a small-business owner (my parents owned a deli in Woodside when I was growing up) knows that he or she doesn’t have time to constantly refresh the DOH Web site just in case a new standard was set.
Restaurant owners need to be explicitly informed of new rules that are relevant to their businesses, and they need to be given adequate time to comply.
To help address this problem, I’ve introduced a bill into the Assembly that would require state, city and local regulatory bodies that set and enforce health standards for eating establishments to provide the establishments with written notice of any new rules that apply to them. The bill would also provide the businesses with a 60-day window after notice is given to adjust to the new regulations before they can be enforced.
My proposed legislation would still allow regulatory agencies to do what they were intended to do, which is promote public health and serve as a line of defense for the people of New York. The bill would also give restaurant owners security in the concept that—as long as they follow the rules put in place to protect their customers—their businesses won’t be unnecessarily hampered by arbitrary fines.
It’s often said that small businesses are the engine of our economy. They create jobs within their communities, and the commercial activity they generate not only benefits them, but the businesses around them as well. Nowhere does this ring truer than in neighborhoods like Astoria, which has seen a rapid emergence of new restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues in the last few decades.
If we’re going to dig our state out of the fiscal mess it currently faces, small businesses will have to lead the way. For them to do that, we need to create a regulatory environment that protects the public’s interests while allowing small businesses to thrive, create jobs, and propel New York into a better and brighter future.