LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — If you spend any time in the Lynchburg area on a regular basis, you’ve probably been to one of the roughly 263 nearby restaurants, schools, and nursing homes where the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) either didn’t come by to inspect or didn’t post a report from within the last year.
“I love Joe Beans, oh my God,” said Raven Usry, a Lynchburg resident, as she read through the list of uninspected restaurants. “I get my coffee there every day.”
“Oh my god. Uppercrust? That’s my favorite pizza place! Oh my God, all the restaurants that I go to. Jade Palace, Waterstone.”
“It’s definitely like a combination of chains and then little, looks like some little mom and pop places, too,” said Lynchburg resident Danielle Racke, “so it kind of looks like everybody’s getting missed.”
“Outback? I love their wings,” said Usry. “Oh my, Brauburger…I’m upset.”
The Central Virginia Health District covers Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, and Campbell.
According to Environmental Health Manager Jim Bowles, restaurants are inspected between one and four times each year.
An inspector not checking in on a restaurant does not necessarily mean there are any issues with the restaurant itself, but as WFXR News found, hundreds of spots in the district don’t have a health inspection report from the past year.
“That’s very shocking and scary,” said Usry.
WFXR News sent VDH the list, but the department came back with recent inspection dates for only seven of them, still leaving more than 250 uninspected.
“I was at first a little bit shocked that that would even be a thing that’s not a priority,” said Racke.
This is not a new issue.
In December 2019, WFXR News found at least 65 restaurants didn’t have a publicly available report. At the time, the VDH said all restaurants were up to date and blamed it on technical issues.
“The state is transitioning from an older database to a new database, and there has been a problem with some of the data transfer,” said Bowles during a December 2019 interview with WFXR News.
Even though back then, they also struggled finding paper records.
Now, the number of missing reports has quadrupled, and the VDH is refusing to give an interview, sending only a written statement citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason:
Yes, the restaurant report website is working, and there aren’t any issues with the online restaurant report website. The website is showing routine, follow-up, and pre-opening inspections. Any inspections in those categories, which were entered into the local database, are on the public-facing website.
There may be some facilities without an inspection within the last year due to VDH working on the COVID-19 pandemic. As with all VDH staff, the priority issue since March of last year has been COVID. Food specialists worked on case investigations, contact tracing, educating business owners and the public about COVID, and investigating COVID-related complaints.
From April 2020 to early 2021, onsite inspections of food facilities were suspended because of the risk to both health department staff and facility employees. Although VDH was able to do some virtual inspections, that was not always possible. We’ve resumed onsite inspections with some limitations to protect personal health. We are prioritizing the facilities that have not had an inspection in the last year, but with the staffing shortage it will take us some time to catch up.Jim Bowles, Environmental Health Manager, VDH
“That’s no excuse. None,” said Usry.
“It’s been a weird year, but I don’t think that gives us any excuse to stop looking out for all the other health issues that we have,” said Racke. “Just because we have one thing that we’re worried about doesn’t mean that everything else suddenly goes away.”
WFXR News reached out to the owners of several of these restaurants. Those WFXR News talked to didn’t want to go on camera, but at several restaurants, managers say that they have noticed that it’s been a long time since an inspector came around.
However, even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Places that have apparently been inspected still don’t have recent reports in the system, either.
Among those WFXR News flagged are two Centra locations: elderly care facility Centra PACE and Riverside Roasters in Lynchburg General Hospital. A spokesperson for Centra said both have been inspected recently: Riverside Roasters in January and PACE in March.
Usry summed up her thoughts succinctly: “Please inspect the restaurants!”
Click here to find your Virginia health district and search the database of restaurant inspections.