The City Council and the DOH have made good on promises to reform the restaurant fine system, which detractors claim unfairly fined restaurants for trivial issues not based on uncleanliness. Five bills will be introduced this week, the result of which is expected to reduce total fines by more than $10 million a year. "Restaurant letter grading was never supposed to be a way to generate additional fine revenue, especially since the Health Department discovered long ago that higher fines don't by themselves result in better sanitary conditions," Speaker Quinn said in a statement. “We have to balance the needs of restaurant owners and operators with our obligation to keep restaurants clean and safe for the public. We’ve struck that balance with the fine reductions we are announcing today.”

The new bills "reduce fines to the level collected before the introduction of the letter grading system," including a 15-20% reduction in commonly issued violations and 60% of all violations set at a $200 minimum fine. For the first time since the program began, the DOH will set specific fine amounts for each violation, whereas fines could previously run between $200 and $2,000 "at the discretion of a hearing officer." The fines breakdown thus:

  • General Violations and low-severity Critical Violations—not properly storing sanitized utensils, flies in a food prep area, etc.—reduced 21.9% to 42.5%
  • High level Critical Violaions—workers without hair covers, workers eating in food storage areas—reduced 13.9% to 16.7%
  • Serious violations—failing to properly cool a food item, etc.—reduced by 22.8%
  • "Fundamental program integrity and operation" violations—obstructing an inspection, failing to post a current grade card, etc.—set at $1,000

Additionally, restaurants who score fewer than 14 points on an initial inspection have their fines waived and restaurants who can prove that structural irregularity violations were not cited on a previous inspection must fix the problem but will not be fined.

The five bills introduced other measures besides fine reduction; one will establish an office to receive comments, another creates an "inspection code of conduct pamphlet" that inspectors give to restaurant owners at the beginning of an initial inspection. All told, the bills aim to streamline a confusing system that has decimated many small businesses while lining the city's coffers.