Health Department works behind the scenes for Sundance Film Festival
As Rebecka Hullinger talks with High West Distillery’s Hospitality Director Ted Russell on Thursday in the foyer before the restaurant’s bi-annual health inspection, employees hurriedly prepare the space for service.
The restaurant’s inspection happens to fall on the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival. The 10-day festival is often the busiest time of the year for Park City’s restaurants and caterers, with most hosting private events throughout the event.
While the inspection coincides with the festival, Russell said the restaurant doesn’t treat it differently than other inspections.
Hullinger, an environmental health scientist with the Summit County Health Department, starts behind the bar, checking the cleanliness of the space and ensuring the dishwasher is working properly. She uses small white strips to test the strength of the dishwasher’s sanitizer, as well as temperature, before moving on to the restaurant’s other main bar and the kitchen, making notes as she goes along.
Hullinger said the film festival poses a unique challenge for the Health Department. She said the event is more hectic than others because of the mass quantities of food that are served to people at different locations.
“There are a lot of outside caterers that come into town, and we have to perform all those inspections to protect the public’s health and safety,” she said. “Our goal is to work in partnership with local caterers and restaurants, as well as the visiting caterers, to protect the public’s health. We will be providing reminders about food safety to prevent food-borne illnesses and outbreaks.”
The Health Department oversees public and environmental health services, such as food and drinking water safety, immunizations and emergency preparedness. The Health Department is responsible for restaurant inspections and permitting for businesses and events.
Environmental scientists with the Health Department visit the restaurants and catering venues to ensure employees are following requirements such as wearing gloves when prepping meals or sending out ready-to-eat foods and providing access to a proper handwashing station.
Last year, more than five venues were temporarily shut down for violations, Hullinger said. The violations were for offenses like not having soap. She said it happens frequently.
“We advise them to stop what they are doing and go somewhere that might have these items, and we can swing back by and do a follow up so they can reopen,” she said.
The Health Department has roughly 30 inspections to perform over the weekend, with more requests coming in daily.
Pushback from restaurant owners and caterers is not uncommon, Hullinger said, adding that she understands the importance of operating during the festival, but prioritizes the public’s health over the complaints.
“It can be a challenge if they are trying to argue these facts with us,” she said. “However, the importance of public health outweighs that. People want to come to Sundance and have fun and have a good time and not go home with an illness.”
A hepatitis A outbreak in Salt Lake City has heightened the awareness of food-borne illnesses during the festival, Hullinger said. A disease of the liver, hepatitis A is transmitted through feces and improperly washed hands.
“It makes me really nervous during my normal inspections, and I have been going over the illness policy and asking a lot of questions about when sick people are sent home,” she said. “I give that example of: You know what is happening in Salt Lake and you just don’t want that. It’s not worth it.”
Derek Siddoway, the public information officer for the Health Department, said the organization is on the same side as the caterers and restaurants. He said inspectors try to be as unobtrusive as possible, while ensuring Sundance “goes off without a hitch.”
Health Department Director Rich Bullough said a significant amount of work goes on behind the scenes to ensure the festival runs smoothly.
“We work hard to assure that foods served at public gatherings are stored and prepared to the highest health and safety standards by conducting inspections and permitting these events,” he said. “This is one of those services that goes unnoticed if it is successful. But, we know it is critical to assuring that participants at the festival can fully enjoy their experience.”
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