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Dive Bars Need Love, Too

Kimberly Dillion REHS/RS is an Environmental Health Specialist and champion in Las Vegas, NV. She has been a member of NEHA for twelve years and has presented her work at an Annual Educational Conference (AEC). In her blog contribution, she advocates for that local favorite, the dive bar, and makes the case that EH professionals can be the key to helping these institutions survive.

Take a moment to think about your favorite dive bar. Why is it your favorite? Is it the people you meet? The food and snacks? The creative beverages? Perhaps there is a bar in your community that has brought people together for generations. These types of establishments can be institutions in some neighborhoods. As an EH professional, you may have visited dive bars as both a customer and an inspector.

I have visited hundreds of bars in amazing places: fabulous Las Vegas, rugged Southern Colorado, and the bustling Boston Metro area. Neighborhood bars, gastropubs, college bars, a rural cowboy bar with a memorialized bullet-hole in the wall, and a high-end penthouse casino bar with a $1,500 bottle service. I have been in Irish bars, Italian social clubs, and a couple of VFWs whose grizzled veterans were belly-up to the bar while chain-smoking and reliving their glory days. The most bizarre? The unfortunate aftermath of a fraternity basement pop-up bar. My favorite? Visiting with an adorable Irish bartender, in an Irish Pub, in Harvard Square, who said he was conceived in Ireland in - you guessed it - an Irish Pub.

As a Registered Environmental Health Specialist/Registered Sanitarian (REHS/RS) I ensure the safety and sanitation of our favorite spaces: bars, restaurants, swimming pools, spas, hotels, motels, and other public businesses. EH professionals observe, inspect, audit, model, educate, demonstrate, and enforce local, city, county, state, and federal regulations. We find and fix things that can make people sick. Listed below are the risk factors are known to cause food-borne illness in bars.*

  • Beverages, garnishes, ice, and other food from mysterious or unsafe sources
  • Bad food temperatures - curdled cream in that White Russian?
  • Inadequate cook temperatures - how should we safely reheat that hot dog?
  • Contaminated equipment - is the glasswasher properly cleaning and sanitizing those tumblers?
  • Poor employee health

As EH professionals, we know how to inspect a space to prevent illness. We check if alcohol, garnishes, food, snacks, tools, and glassware are procured from approved sources. We ensure refrigerators are at correct cold temperatures and glasswashers are cleaning and sanitizing effectively. How are the floors, walls, and ceilings? Little River Band - good. Little rivers on the floor - bad. Plumbing and pest control? We make certain there's hot water and that the 2,4,6, and 8-legged pests are kept outside and prevented from entering. We ask bar managers if they hire out for pest control and deep cleaning. We follow up to make sure their contractors are qualified, certified, licensed, bonded, and do a good job. Before signing off we double-check there are no slimy pink stalactites (mold) inside the ice machine.

Our work goes beyond inspection. We also provide an education for the owners, managers, and service workers that we interact with. We know how to safely handle and cook dangerous food. We implore bar owners to make certain the bartenders and other food workers are in good health and to send them home if they are experiencing symptoms of illness. We diplomatically remind bartenders about best practices like not touching that lemon twist with bare hands because fingers can transfer viruses and other germs into food, onto a garnish, into a beverage, and make customers sick. **

This past year has been especially hard on bars and restaurants, but EH professionals can help see them through to the other side. The pandemic will eventually abate, bar customers will return, things will get better. There are thousands of EH professionals in the US who are working hard every day to help our favorite establishments through this process. So, give some love to your local watering hole because dive bars need love, too.

* USPHS FDA Food Code 2013

** FoodHandler Article

Additional resources on food safety can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect the policy, endorsement, or action of NEHA or the organization where the author is employed. NEHA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.