Tag Archives: dohmh

Queens street vendors, businesses compete for customers


| aaltamirano@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/ Photos by Johann Hamilton

While a bill that would regulate the number of mobile street vendors still sits in the state Senate, businesses remain frustrated as they continue to battle to keep their customers.

For the past few years, businesses said they have seen mobile street vendors growing to a point where pedestrians can find a handful on one block. They provide residents and visitors with an endless amount of handmade goods.

Yet, even as their popularity has grown there are also the questions of whether these street vendors affect larger businesses and if they should receive letter grades from the city’s Department of Health like restaurants.

Food vendors are licensed and inspected by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). According to the DOHMH, it attempts annual on-the-street inspections at each mobile vending unit and also conducts inspections after receiving complaints.

According to the DOHMH, records of inspections are available to the public by calling 3-1-1 and giving the food cart’s permit number or license number.

Mobile food vendors are subject to the Health and Administrative Codes, but do not receive letter grades.

State Senator Jose Peralta introduced legislation in 2011 to grade the food vendors the same way as restaurants in order to ensure the best quality for buyers and help remove vendors that sell goods illegally. The bill still sits in the Senate’s Health Committee.

“Whether buying a meal in a restaurant or from a mobile food vendor, consumers should know that what they’re eating has met certain health and safety standards,” said Peralta. “New York City street food is famous around the world. With a letter-grade system, our street food will also be known for its safety and cleanliness.”

Peralta’s office also continues to hear from local businesses about the growing number of vendors that cause them problems.

To sell or lease other goods and services in a public space, potential vendors need to apply for a General Street Vendor License from the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Potential vendors must have both a food vendor license and permit for their cart. DOHMH issues a maximum total of 5,100 different food unit permits and over the last few years, the number of applications for licenses have increased.

The Courier took to the streets to speak to some vendors and businesses in Bayside and Jackson Heights, two areas in the borough that have a large presence of mobile street vendors.

“I’ve been in this same spot for 16 years because it’s in my neighborhood,” said John Amanatidis, who owns a shish kebab stand on the corner of Northern Boulevard and Bell Boulevard in Bayside. “We do have problems with parking because sometimes people park in this parking lot while they get food here.”

Amanatidis’ stand and a hotdog vendor on Northern Boulevard are being accused of invading private property as their customers use the parking lot owned by CVS Pharmacy and Party City. According to the businesses, this has their potential patrons thinking twice about coming back.

“Business has been very slow because of the street vendor competition,” said Sonia Chawle, owner of Fine Indian Cuisine and Sweets in Jackson Heights. “It’s very different from how it used to be, and I think it’s like that for everyone who has a restaurant around here right now.”

Vendors say they are trying to make a living and do not want to harm the surrounding businesses.

“I put my cart here because it’s where I can make the most business,” said Aman Bachoo, who owns a halal cart in Jackson Heights. “That’s the same reason the restaurants are here too, so I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Even with the conflict between some vendors and businesses, some brick-and-mortar establishments find no problem with the presence of street carts.

According to one employee at Mita Jewelers in Jackson Heights, the jewelry vendors don’t affect business because they sell artificial items compared to the 22 karat gold jewelry available at the store.

“They have their customers and we have ours,” said Alfredo Herrero, manager of Nuevo Tacos Al Suadero. “They’re making competition but not that much.”

Rosendo Medina, a Jackson Heights resident who often eats at a vending cart called Tacos Del Carrito, said the food he gets from the vendors has a unique flavor that keeps bringing him back.

“Sometimes the food here is more delicious,” he said. “Restaurants hire chefs and they don’t know the seasoning. With restaurants you have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for food.”

Food cart patron Steven James echoed the sentiment.

“Even if they [falafel stands] were farther away and more expensive, I would still go out of my way to find them, it has nothing to do with not wanting to give other places my business,” he said.

Additional reporting by Johann Hamilton, Benjamin Fang and Zachary Kraehling

 

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Concern over closure of Corona immunization clinic


| aaltamirano@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/ Photo by Angy Altamirano

A move to close two major immunization walk-in clinics has left community members looking for answers.

The City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) announced it will shutter the Corona Health Center, located at 34-33 Junction Boulevard, and the Tremont Health Center in the Bronx by the end of the month.

Together with community leaders and elected officials, members of District Council 37 (DC 37), a public employee union, rallied last week at City Hall to stop the DOHMH’s plans. Lillian Roberts, executive director of DC 37, called the closings “a threat to public health and safety” and noted they would come right when children are going back to school.

“Parents in this community already have a hard time finding a seat for their children in a real classroom,” said State Senator Jose Peralta. “Now the city wants to make it harder for them to get their kids immunized for school.”

According to Councilmember Daniel Dromm, the Corona Health Center is in the heart of a heavy immigrant community where access to affordable health care is already limited.

“I just can’t believe they are going to close it,” said Dromm. “Elmhurst Hospital is already so overwhelmed and this is only going to add to their burden. It’s a very poor health decision. It’s going to have a devastating effect on the community.”

The walk-in clinics offered children over four years old, teens and adults immunizations for conditions including hepatitis, tetanus, measles, mumps, influenza and rubella.

“The loss of these immunization clinics will not only create a burden for hundreds of New Yorkers who currently rely on their service, but it could also lead to significant public health risks,” said Councilmember Julissa Ferreras.

After the Corona and Tremont clinics are closed, the Fort Greene Health Center, located at 295 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, will be the only immunization walk-in clinic in New York City offering free and low-cost immunizations.

“This is not a decision that the Department takes lightly,” said the DOHMH in a statement. “While we are reluctant to close clinics, the agency has decided to restructure and consolidate services to preserve essential functions and reduce overall cost of operations, knowing that less than one percent of all vaccinations in New York City occur at our clinics.”

According to the DOHMH, the Fort Greene center will remain open five days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and there are still 50 primary providers in the Bronx and 22 in Queens that provide free or low-cost immunizations.

The DOHMH also said no staff will be laid off as a result of the closings.

Peralta and Dromm have each sent letters of opposition to the department’s plans to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and DOHMH Commissioner Thomas Farley.

 

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Bellerose residents demand mosquito help after years with no West Nile spraying


| mchan@queenscourier.com

Photo courtesy of CDC

Bellerose residents say they live in a forgotten land when it comes to the city’s efforts to eliminate mosquitoes.

“You can’t go outside. You can’t make it from your car to your front door,” said Maria Donza.

The bloodsuckers are keeping residents on house arrest and even alert indoors, said Donza, who added she sits with a bottle of bug spray at home.

The city has not sprayed the area since before 2011.

Pesticide was scheduled for Bellerose in August 2011, but the order was eventually canceled, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) website.

The department recently targeted neighborhoods north of Bellerose, spraying parts of Bayside, Douglaston, Douglaston Manor, Glen Oaks, Little Neck and Oakland Gardens on July 25 and early the next day.

“Everywhere else in Queens has been mostly getting sprayed,” said resident AJ Sonnick. “I don’t understand why Bellerose has been forgotten.”

The 20-year-old said he was bitten four times in the 20 minutes he was in his backyard the other day.

“This is a beautiful neighborhood. It’s a great neighborhood to live,” Sonnick said. “It’s a shame that we just can’t sit outside.”

A DOHMH spokesperson said Bellerose has not been sprayed because no West Nile Virus activity has been detected there.

The virus is spread to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. It can cause encephalitis and meningitis.

Insects carrying the potentially fatal virus were recently found in Auburndale, College Point, Holliswood, Middle Village, Pomonok and the areas north of Bellerose sprayed last week.

The pesticide is taken as a last resort in areas where there is a high risk of West Nile Virus transmission, the department said.

Catch basins in Bellerose have been treated with larvicide twice this season.

“Though there may be an increase in floodwater mosquitoes citywide, these mosquitoes do not transmit West Nile Virus,” the DOHMH spokesperson said.

However, State Senator Tony Avella said the city should take measures before Bellerose makes the infected list.

“Every year, we have deaths from West Nile Virus. Every year, it resurfaces,” he said. “So why don’t we do a much more proactive spraying to reduce that population rather than wait until it explodes on us?”

Mosquitoes “don’t know what a boundary is on a map” and can fly into new nearby territories, the legislator added.

The city urged residents to call 3-1-1 to report standing water, which can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

 

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EXCLUSIVE: Many Queens day care centers operating illegally


| mchan@queenscourier.com

Stock photo

A little known law may be keeping some Queens day care centers from operating legally, The Courier has learned.

Permits from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), a certificate of occupancy from the Department of Buildings and a fire inspection pass are needed for city child care providers who fall under certain categories. These include those who look after three or more kids unrelated to them either in a private home or institution for more than three hours a day, on a regular basis.

But a less familiar rule requires these centers also give written notification to local precincts and fire departments within five days of receiving certifications, the agencies said.

“The day care centers are kind of off our radar. For safety reasons, we’d like to know where they are,” said Special Operations Lieutenant Daniel Heffernan of the 111th Precinct.

According to Heffernan, about 26 centers in the Bayside-based precinct are legally licensed with the city. The precinct’s list is still being updated, but only eight were registered with police as of press time.

“We know there are others out there who have not reported to us,” Heffernan said.

Gary Poggiali, the precinct’s community affairs officer, said he suspects businesses that are providing under-the-radar services in their private homes are trying to make an extra buck in a bad economy.

“There are people who don’t realize they have to contact us,” he said. “They’ll think, ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m taking care of two kids. Why don’t I take care of four and make money?’ But we have to know what’s going on in our community.”

The Courier reached out to several Craigslist ads that were offering day care services for multiple children in private Queens homes. A woman running an at-home center in East Elmhurst said she was “working on” obtaining a permit but was still watching many children without it at the time of the call.

She said the certification was “coming any day now” and added she would spike up prices when it arrived.

According to a DOHMH spokesperson, the department inspects centers it receives complaints about within 24 hours and shuts down those found to be running improperly. But home-based providers are regulated by the state, not the city.

There are 472 permitted child care centers in the borough, the spokesperson said. It was unclear how many were also registered with the NYPD and FDNY.

The process to do so is simple, police said. It involves filling out a short form and providing a copy of the city permit at a local precinct.

Heffernan said enforcement became stricter after a California daycare shooting in 1999 killed one person and injured five others, including three kids.

A two-month old baby girl was also reportedly found dead in an alleged illegal day care in Elmhurst in November 2012.

“This is a very big safety issue,” Heffernan said. “If you’re a parent, would you want to put your kids in a place that’s unlicensed? I wouldn’t.”

 

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Many divided over Plan B availability in schools


| ctumola@queenscourier.com

Voyagers 1w

Though Plan B, also known as the “morning-after” pill, has been dispensed at select New York City high schools since January 2011, its availability was not widely reported until recently.

The pilot program, which also provides birth control to students, started with five schools then expanded to nine more at the start of the 2011-2012 school year, said New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) spokesperson Veronica Lewin.

Last school year, 567 students received Plan B at the pilot schools, she said.

One school dropped out of the program, but the emergency contraception is still available to any student at 13 high schools as part of the Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health (CATCH) program, which aims to prevent teen pregnancy.

There are no plans yet to expand it, said Lewin.

Four schools in Queens are in the pilot: John Adams High School in Ozone Park, VOYAGES Preparatory High School in Elmhurst, Newcomers High School and Queens Vocational and Technical High School in Long Island City. “Schools were selected based on their community pregnancy rates and availability of other services in the neighborhood. The principals were also supportive of the program,” said Lewin.

According to the Health Department, in New York City more than 7,000 young women become pregnant by age 17, 90 percent of which are unplanned.

Plan B must be taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. It is available without a prescription for women 17 and older. Those that are younger need a prescription for it, but it is offered free or at a low cost to all teens at some area health clinics. According to Planned Parenthood, Plan B can cost from $10 to $70.

Before the pilot, the morning-after pill had been available to students at privately-run school based health centers, said Lewin.

All of the city’s public high schools already have a mandated Condom Availability Program, where each school must have a Health Resource Room with free condoms. Parents can opt their children out of that program by signing a form.

An opt-out form was also sent home to parents for the Plan B pilot, said Lewin, and about one to two percent of parents have signed it.

Some students at the Queens high schools offering Plan B were well aware that it was available and had received the opt-out form, but others were hearing about it for the first time on Monday, September 24.

“[I learned about Plan B] right now. The class talked about it during government,” said Alondra Payan, a 16-year-old senior at Queens Vocational and Technical High School. “I think it would be better if there was an age restriction. There are kids that are 13, 14 here and they are going to be sexually active because now they think that because of the Plan B it’ll be safe.”

“I found out when it was posted in the newspaper last year,” said Mary Paguay, also a student at Queens Vocational. “If the parents don’t return the opt-out form any child is able to get it. I feel it’s sort of bad because you don’t have the parent’s permission but if the child is in need of it then they probably would want it.”

Some critics are afraid that if it is handed out to teens for free or without parental permission, it will be used as a regular birth control method; others are concerned that it will lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

The Health Department’s website stresses that a condom should be used to protect against STDs, and that using ongoing birth control, such as the pill, is the best way to prevent pregnancy.

 With additional reporting by Sweetina Kakar

Biz owners blast sweetened beverage ban


| lguerre@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Liam La Guerre

Is it the new Prohibition?

Queens business owners are against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban of large sweetened beverages, reasoning that it would put a cap on their rights and water down sales.

Proprietors told Councilmember Julissa Ferreras this as she scanned four businesses near her East Elmhurst office, engaging them about the ban’s potential effects, in an event organized by the New Yorkers for Beverage Choices coalition on July 19.

“I think he [Bloomberg] is trying to approach obesity in the ways that he is being advised and I just think this one is ill-advised,” Ferreras said while standing in front a small deli.

The store is run by Rocio Galindo, a mother of three originally from Mexico, who said she put all her money into opening the shop last year and fears the proposed restriction could discourage patrons from shopping at her store.

“She put every egg in this basket to be able to survive,” Ferreras said, translating for Galindo.

If passed, what’s being called as the “soda ban” will halt the sale of sugary bottled and fountain drinks, such as teas, sodas and sports drinks, above 16 ounces in every store and restaurant with letter grades, movie theaters, sports venues, delis and food trucks and carts.

Diet sodas, calorie-free drinks, and drinks with at least 50 percent milk are exempted from the regulation.

“Although obesity is caused by a myriad of factors, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that a significant contributor to consumption of extra calories over the last three decades is the over-consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages,” said The Obesity Society, which commends the mayor’s initiative. “Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages are empty calories, because they are typically devoid of nutrients other than simple sugar.”

But members of the coalition and store owners argue that the prohibition is simply an abuse of power.

“The last time I checked this is a still a democracy,” said Miguel Reyes, a store owner. “This is not Russia; this is not Cuba, where government can tell you what you can drink or what you can do.”

“There is no research that links beverages directly to obesity,” said Liz Berman, a member of New Yorkers for Beverage Choices and president of Continental Food and Beverages. “Obesity is a very complex problem. It takes nutritional education, exercise and having the right choices.

The soda ban is just one of the mayor’s moves to shrink the city’s waist line.

Five years ago Bloomberg banned trans-fat in restaurants and a city-funded study released on July 17 proved it made the city healthier.

The city recently launched “Shop Healthy NYC,” a voluntary program to encourage stores to display health food prominently, and “Cut the Junk,” a plan to teach locals that cooking at home is healthier and less expensive than dining out.

However, what really bothers Ferreras is that the mayor’s proposal does not ban sugary drinks from stores across the board.

Supermarkets, bodegas, and pharmacies such as 7-Eleven or Rite Aid will be able to sell the huge drinks.

“It’s going to hurt me,” Abel Ahuatl, an immigrant store owner said. “I feel like some are going to come only for a sandwich, let’s say, and they are going to the bodega to get their drinks.”

There will be a public hearing about the soda ban in the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) offices in Long Island City on July 24.

However, the mayor doesn’t need a public vote for the ban, just approval by the DOHMH to set the ban in effect.

 

Health Department fines frustrate Queens restaurant owners


| bdoda@queenscourier.com

Photo by Bob Doda

While the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) officials are cleaning up restaurants throughout the city, restaurant owners are claiming their wallets are being cleaned out at the same time.

Starting in July 2010, the DOHMH made it a requirement for restaurant owners to post the letter grade results of their sanitary inspection.

The grading system is intended to bolster aptitude toward being as clean as possible, but many restaurant owners believe that the frequency of inspections and number of fines received are becoming increasingly unfair.

According to the DOHMH web site, when a restaurant improves between initial inspections, the department reviews it less frequently.
“In about a year, they came three times even though we had an ‘A,’” said Dina Amatuccio, manager of Cascarino’s in Bayside. “The codes change and they don’t tell us. It’s aggravating because they come here when it’s really busy and it takes away from being able to pay attention to the customers. It’s annoying.”

Other restaurant owners in Bayside reported similar experiences with inspectors who, according to the DOHMH, are randomly assigned to specific eateries. One owner said that while an inspector may be paying attention to one area of violations, the next will concentrate on something completely different. A DOHMH spokesperson said that fines usually range from $200 to $2,000 based on severity of violations.

“We are just trying to survive here,” said one Bayside owner, also displaying an ‘A’ in his front window.

He said that despite the grade, he has had to pay violations twice over the past six months.

“The way they change the rules, I had to hire a guy just to make sure everything is perfect. I know they are trying to look out for the customer, but they should be more worried about places that have ‘B’ or ‘C’ ratings.”

Inspection cycles are individual to each restaurant, based on its pattern of cleanliness, according to the DOHMH. Some inspections are based on customers’ complaints or re-inspections from prior violations.
“The overarching goal of the restaurant letter grading program is transparency and food safety, not revenue or fines,” said a DOHMH spokesperson. “The Department is now inspecting restaurants that perform at ‘C’ grade levels about three times each year, ‘B’s twice, and ‘A’s, once per year. Each time a restaurant improves its score on its initial inspections, it can reduce the frequency with which it is inspected, and thereby decrease its potential to incur violations and pay fines.”

One Long Island City restaurant owner who received a ‘B’ inspection grade believes that the system is too ambiguous for customers to understand.

“They see a low letter grade and they automatically think the restaurant is dirty,” said the owner. “We have a ‘B’ because we didn’t have the appropriate paperwork on file. Consumers see the grade and they think the worst . . . Personally, I like the grading system. I think restaurants should put out high-quality food that is safe for the public and is held to a certain standard. I thought it was great until I saw the way they were doing it. They come in for an inspection, find something, fine you and then another inspector comes in and doesn’t inspect what the last guy inspected. He just finds something new and fines you for it.”

During the 2011 fiscal year, revenue collected for fines from food service establishments reached $42.5 million dollars, according to the DOHMH. The Health Department anticipates a five percent reduction in fines collected each year for the next two years going forward.

In January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a fine relief program designed to reward those who got an ‘A’ grade on initial and re-inspections with no fines.

Still, restaurant owners have a different take on inspections.

“I think there’s a lot of miscommunication on the inspector’s end,” said Chris Evans, co-owner of Press 195 in Bayside with an ‘A’ grade. “You’ll get a story that something is wrong and we’ll correct it. Then, another inspector will come and say that’s not how it should be done. You’ll be told to do one thing and they fine you for it the next time.”

“Inspectors are really going rogue at this point,” said the previously-mentioned Long Island City restaurant owner. “I think the bottom line is that the city needs money . . . for us small places, these fines are killing us.”

Restaurant grades throughout the city, including all recorded violations as well as statistics from the first year of grading implementation, can be found by visitingwww.nyc.gov/health.

–With additional reporting by Melissa Chan and Steve Mosco