Coffee shops, bistros, and so-called holes in the wall will no longer be allowed to skirt a state health regulation if a bill passed by the Massachusetts House Tuesday becomes law.
The bill would close a loophole that exempts restaurants with fewer than 25 seats from a state law that requires such businesses to have someone on site who is trained in the procedures for removing food lodged in someone’s throat, said state Representative Ruth Balser, Democrat of Newton.
“Our point is someone can choke if there’s only 23 seats, as easily as if there were 30 seats,” Balser said.
Massachusetts Restaurant Association lobbyist Stephen Clark said the law requiring restaurants with seating for 25 or more to have a “choke saver” certified staff member on site has been on the books since 1980, and the association is neither opposing nor supporting the proposed legislation.
“We’ve technically taken no position on the bill,” Clark said. However, he said, if the bill becomes law it could affect restaurants’ bottom lines. Clark said, “Any time that there’s a regulation passed, there is a cost associated with that.”
The Restaurant and Business Alliance opposes the legislation, saying it will be a burden on businesses.
“With the Massachusetts hospitality industry losing 7,000 jobs in the last 3 months, we should not add more costs to our small businesses,” David Andelman, alliance president, said in a statement.
“While we applaud the good intention of this bill, it is not fair that this vague bill burdens any businesses with liability for something beyond their control,” Andelman said.
Jarrett Barrios, chief executive of the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts, said that safety training is “a small burden” that makes a “huge reward.”
Barrios said the choking training requirement is less burdensome than the requirement for sprinklers or for signs about allergies, but could mean the difference between life and death.
“Oftentimes it takes paramedics too long to get there, and to save a life requires immediate response,” Barrios said.
Clark said he was not sure how many restaurants had a seating capacity of fewer than 25, but said “there’s probably more than you think,” noting that many Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks locations fall into that category.
Boston has 4,150 restaurants, according to its Inspectional Services Department, but the city does not track how many restaurants have seating for fewer than 25 people.
Before the bill was passed Tuesday, Balser amended it to exempt take-out only restaurants and to remove an old provision calling for restaurants to maintain a “device” used to remove food, which Balser said has been deemed dangerous and is not in use.
The bill now heads to the state Senate for its consideration during informal sessions that will run through the end of 2012 and where debate and recorded votes are not allowed.
The legislation leaves it up to the Department of Public Health to adopt regulations.
While there was not a particular incident that caused concern among the city’s health officials, Balser said, choking remains a real health hazard in the state.