Framingham Health Inspector Camille Griffin walked past the line of masked customers waiting to get into Trader Joe’s toward the employee counting those who entered and exited the grocery store.
Griffin, who wore her periwinkle health department-issued zip-up and badge, asked in a perky voice to see the manager.
She was there for her first in-person inspection of the Worcester Road store since the pandemic began. The visit was prompted by the second complaint received by the Health Department about overcrowding and lack of social distancing in the grocery store’s aisles since August.
As she walked around the store on her way to meet the manager for the unannounced inspection, Griffin clutched her clipboard.
She noticed the yellow chains the store had installed to ensure aisle traffic flowed in a single direction. She assessed the space between customers reaching for food on shelves. She eyed the grocery store’s employees to see if they were wearing masks, and if those masks fully covered their noses and mouths.
A coronavirus health inspection usually doesn’t take long, Griffin said. Sometimes it lasts as few as 15 minutes. She’s looking for compliance, specifically with the rules complainants have alleged are being ignored or broken. If, during her in-person inspection, she finds those rules are not being followed, she issues a written warning.
Subsequent violations result in fines starting at $100.
But Griffin, one of five health inspectors working for the Health Department, said the aim of coronavirus inspections is not to punish. Inspectors want to educate and provide guidance, because their ultimate goal is getting businesses to follow rules intended to keep employees and customers safe.
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In her Thursday morning inspection of Trader Joe’s, Griffin found the store was fully compliant.
After speaking with the manager, whom Griffin had reached by phone after the first complaint per protocol, she learned the store allows in fewer shoppers than legally allowed.
“There’s no follow-up, though the manager will be letting me know how many square feet the store has,” Griffin said outside of the store. “I didn’t even issue a verbal warning today, because there was nothing to warn them about. If we get another complaint, we would make another site visit.”
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Before the coronavirus, Griffin usually knew what her day would entail upon arriving at the Health Department, located on the Memorial Building’s second floor.
She leads the city’s work on pre-rental inspections, which are intended to ensure rental units are livable before a new occupant moves in. She would check to see if water was too hot or too cold, she would test smoke alarms and locks, she would count the number of outlets available in each room, look for signs of household pests or water damage.
When she wasn’t doing pre-rental or other housing inspections, Griffin would visit restaurants to check food safety practices. She helped with septic assessments.
Though some of those inspections are still done in-person, much of that work has continued virtually, which has required inspectors to adapt. Griffin has had to ask the occupants of residential units she’s inspecting over FaceTime or via Zoom if they have a food thermometer to check their own water temperature, for example.
But now, those inspections, usually scheduled in advance, are mixed with coronavirus safety inspections prompted by complaints from residents that come in by phone, email, through the city’s SeeClickFix portal or in person, now that the Memorial Building is open to the public.
“With COVID, scheduling is not a thing because so many things kind of just pop up out of nowhere,” she said.
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Between March 31 and Sept. 23, the Health Department received 398 complaints, a figure that includes non-coronavirus-related complaints. During the same time frame last year, the department received 237 complaints. That’s an increase of nearly 70%.
Griffin said the most common coronavirus-related complaints are about businesses.
“People not wearing face coverings, people not social distancing, stores allowing too many people in,” she said.
Responding to residents’ concerns
Recently, the Health Department has seen an uptick in the number of complaints about apartment and condo complexes not enforcing mask-wearing or allowing gatherings that exceed state limits, Griffin said. The city recently instituted a $500 fine for hosts of gatherings where people are ignoring the rules, which the Health Department has said are the source of most new infections in Framingham.
“We have a lot of concerned residents that tell us, ‘Property management is trying to host an outdoor event. I don’t feel safe living in a property that’s doing activities like that,’” she said.
If the Health Department learns of a planned gathering at an apartment or condo complex in advance, inspectors will call the property manager to recommend postponing the event, especially while Framingham continues to log a high number of new COVID-19 cases at apartment and condo buildings.
In Framingham, which has spent weeks as a state-designated high-risk community for coronavirus spread, 74% of infections reported over the previous 14 days were among people living in multi-unit residential housing, according to a Sept. 21 data release from the health department.
“For the most part we’re able to dissuade (people from hosting gatherings), but I can’t say that that’s 100% the case,” Griffin said. “We try to work our magic and really educate property management as to why we’re discouraging it, but that doesn’t mean that they’re required to listen to our advice.”
That’s because some gatherings are allowed under current coronavirus restrictions.
The state’s most recent guidance on non-political and non-religious gatherings, released Aug. 7, limits indoor gatherings to eight people per 1,000 square feet, with a maximum limit of 25 people in a single enclosed, indoor space. A maximum of 50 people are allowed to gather in a single enclosed outdoor space. Attendees of indoor and outdoor gatherings must maintain a distance of 6 feet from anyone not part of their households, and, if the gatherings include more than 10 people, attendees must wear face coverings.
“If people are going to go ahead and have gatherings against our advice, we do provide as much guidance on to how to hold it safely, but our main message is, right now is not the time to be having gatherings,” Griffin said.
If the health department doesn’t know about a gathering before it takes place, police will usually respond, especially if the gathering is held at night or on weekends.
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Early in the week, the health department gets a report about gatherings held over the weekend from police, Griffin said. Using notes taken by officers, the health department attempts to determine who hosted the gathering. A first time offender gets a written warning in the mail, she said.
“If it’s a repeat property that we’ve already sent a warning letter to, then we would issue a $500 fine,” Griffin said, adding that another health inspector has taken the lead on responding to illegal gatherings.
But for complaints about parties in common areas of multi-unit housing complexes, finding out who to hold responsible has been difficult, Griffin said.
“I know that we are trying to get more detail from the police, if they’re responding to it, about who is hosting it,” Griffin said.
Sometimes, health inspectors face language barriers as they work to get the city’s businesses, organizations and residents to comply with coronavirus rules. Griffin said one of the city’s health inspectors speaks fluent Spanish, but, especially with Portuguese-speaking residents, communication is an ongoing difficulty.
Sharing the precautions and solutions
The Health Department does partner with translators who have helped create informational flyers that are available in multiple languages and include infographics meant to transcend language.
“It’s easy to see a check mark with someone wearing a face covering that is covering their nose and mouth and a big X if it’s a nose exposed,” she said. “We’re trying to visually get that message across.”
The Health Department created some of those flyers specifically for the city’s dozens of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking religious congregations. In recent weeks, the city has compiled a list of Framingham’s houses of worship, some of which are very small, and started to send emails and make phone calls to congregation leaders.
“We were even physically going out and walking around and looking for different storefronts and sticking fliers in the door,” she said. “We were trying in every way possible, and for each place, we tried to reach out in at least two different ways.”
In addition to connecting with faith-based organizations to discuss COVID-19 safety rules, the Health Department is trying to learn how congregations are hosting their services. Some are meeting outdoors, some are meeting indoors, some are meeting virtually, and the type of service impacts what precautions congregations need to take.
Griffin said the Health Department has received complaints about some congregations not requiring face coverings during service, so the visual flyers given to churches and other faith groups emphasize that rule, as well as the requirements that families from different households are separated by six feet and congregations don’t exceed reduced capacity requirements during service.
“We’re currently in the process of sending out another blast email to the emails that we have for the churches because we got clarification on having a choir or a band performing,” Griffin said.
“We need a flow chart”
Navigating complex and changing rules about coronavirus safety and communicating those changes to relevant parties, present a constant challenge.
“We need a flow chart,” Griffin said. “If you’re doing this, then you need this. But if you’re not doing this part of that, you need to do this. That’s part of the reason that we’re in frequent communication with the state. To get guidance and clarification.”
Griffin, whose undergraduate training was in occupational health and safety, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health from Boston University. Education, she said, is the most important service she and other inspectors can provide.
The Health Department often fields calls from people, especially business owners, asking how to best comply with coronavirus rules.
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When Griffin calls a business for a chat after getting a complaint from a resident, the first step in an escalation protocol outlined by the state, she said her primary aim is to understand what precautions the business is taking and whether management is facing any challenges in complying with rules.
“We’ve gotten complaints and owners or managers have said, ‘You know what, we’re struggling with having people wear face coverings entering our store,’” she said.
Store owners and the Health Department cannot force those who claim a medical exemption from wearing a face covering to put one on, she said.
In those cases, all the Health Department can do is remind business owners that they do have a right to ask people why they’re not wearing a mask.
“If a customer does indicate that it is for a medical exemption, that’s the end of the questions,” Griffin said with a small sigh. “I don’t want to be cynical and think that people are abusing the system.”
Employers have much more control over their own employees wearing masks properly, she said.
Griffin said overall, businesses want to comply with coronavirus safety rules.
“The phone call after the first complaint is educational,” Griffin said. “It’s friendly. Again, we’re here for compliance. We want to put it on their radar. A lot of times, they’re completely unaware of the complaint.”
A second complaint triggers a site visit like the one Griffin made to Trader Joe’s on Thursday. If inspectors find violations, they could issue a warning, then increasing monetary fines for further violations.
The most costly fine Griffin has issued was to Samba Steak & Sushi, a restaurant on Worcester Road, which was fined $300 when it opened outdoor dining before those plans were approved by the city.
Fines are a last resort for health inspectors, Griffin said.
“We still need their cooperation,” she said, explaining that even visits that result in a warning or fine are primarily meant to educate business owners and provide advice on how to comply with COVID-19 rules. “I say, ‘I get no pleasure out of issuing this ticket right now. We’re here for compliance. We’re not here to punish. So, yes, we are issuing a citation, but we want compliance. I know you don’t want me back here, and I don’t want to come back here because I know what that would mean.’”
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Sometimes, enforcing coronavirus rules can feel like whack-a-mole, Griffin said. When she investigates one complaint, another arises. The Health Department’s phone rings off the hook, she said.
“It can get overwhelming,” Griffin said. “You’re kind of getting pulled in multiple directions and everything is a priority right now. But we have a really strong team. If I have too much on my plate and I know that something needs to get called on today, I will ask if one of the other inspectors is able to handle it, and I’ll jump at the moment that any of them need assistance.”
Griffin does think about the risk she’s taking when she makes inspectional visits in Framingham.
“Obviously it’s a concern in the back of your mind,” she said. “I don’t live in Framingham, but I’m working in a red community, so I do think about what that means for my family and my household.”
But that concern has never made her hesitate in responding to a call.
“I still see the big picture,” she said. “This is what needs to get done to help Framingham get back into a better place.”
Jeannette Hinkle is a reporter for the Daily News. Reach her at email@example.com.