State agency tells Iowans: Don’t complain about lack of face masks in restaurants

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals is responsible for inspecting food establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants and convenience stores, as well as food processing plants, hotels and motels. (Photo illustration by Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The same state agency that failed to disclose hundreds of restaurant inspections triggered by consumer complaints is warning Iowans not to file complaints about businesses that don’t enforce their own face-mask requirements.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals recently posted an online “COVID-19 violation” complaint form that consumers can use to alert state regulators to violations of the governor’s order requiring restaurants and bars to impose social-distancing measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the Iowa restaurants that are now emphasizing carry-out service due to the pandemic have, as a matter of policy, imposed some type of mask requirement for workers or carry-out customers. But because the governor has only encouraged, and not required, Iowa businesses to have their staff or customers wear face masks, DIA’s complaint form repeatedly warns people not to lodge complaints about face masks not being worn.

“Please do not report an establishment for not requiring masks,” the form states in bold, enlarged type. “Restaurants, bars, and other establishments ARE NOT REQUIRED TO ENFORCE MASK USAGE for customers or staff, though it is strongly encouraged … MASKS ARE NOT REQUIRED.”

Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals asks Iowans not to report lack of mask-wearing in restaurants. (Screen shot from Iowa DIA website)

DIA officials were unable to say Thursday how many complaints about mask usage have been rejected by the agency.

The agency’s complaint form allows for complaints in any of four categories: Groups or individuals not seated at least 6 feet apart from other groups or individuals; more customers in the establishment than there are seats available; customers allowed to congregate together closer than 6 feet; and workers not practicing the necessary hygiene.

DIA handles food-establishment inspections for most of Iowa. It posts the results of routine, scheduled inspections to a website that claims to show “the violations from the last inspection.”

In June, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that for at least the previous 18 months, the department’s website excluded the findings of all restaurant inspections triggered by consumer complaints.

In 2019 alone, there were 1,042 complaints received, and 330 of those were verified by the department but excluded from public disclosure through the website.

Department officials say that about 31% of the complaints it receives about food establishments are verified through the inspection process.

Department officials said they first realized in January 2019 that complaint inspections were not being posted and were unable to correct the problem, which was attributed to a “bug” in the computer software. In the meantime, the agency’s website was never corrected to indicate that verified complaints about restaurants were not being publicly disclosed.

DIA officials were unable to say Thursday whether the missing inspection reports were added to the site since June. The site still claims to include all of the “violations from the last inspection” at each restaurant.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.