Delaware dog lovers were confused and angered last month when the Division of Public Health published a Facebook post stating pets aren’t allowed at restaurants, according to state food code — even on a patio.
The code has been on the books for 10 years or more, but rarely is enforced.
Dog-owning foodies were astonished to learn this, because dogs frequently are allowed on decks and patios of restaurants. Some pet friendly places will put out water bowls for their four-legged customers.
State Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, was just as shocked — so he is introducing legislation to ensure dogs can sit in outdoor areas on a leash if restaurant owners permit.
“I was just as surprised as they were to hear that this regulation was a long-standing rule that simply wasn’t enforced for years. I used to bring my dog with me to breakfast all the time and never knew anything about this policy,” Schwartzkopf said in a statement.
“Bottom line: This was a regulation that wasn’t being enforced, so we should get rid of it. This bill will just return things to the status quo many have enjoyed for years.”
He added restaurant owners won’t be required to allow dogs on their patios, and restaurants still must comply to health and cleanliness standards.
The only exceptions in the current food code are service animals, patrol dogs and fish in tanks. Emotional support animals are not allowed in a restaurant under current regulations.
“We know you love Fido. So do we, but leave your pets at home when you go out to eat,” DPH wrote in its post.
Dustin Mitchell, the general manager of Iron Hill Brewery in Wilmington said he believes most restaurant owners didn’t know about the outdoor section of the code. He said since the Facebook post, he’s stopped allowing dogs in the outdoor area.
“It’s pretty upsetting, because it’s something (customers) don’t understand the reasoning behind it because they’ve done it in the past,” Mitchell said.
After receiving hundreds of angry comments from pet lovers, DPH clarified this portion of the food code is nothing new, but that inspectors haven’t strictly enforced the outdoor portion. DPH told followers it will revisit the code and associated policies to the issue.
“Food establishment owners should be aware of the potential health and safety risks of allowing animals in the outdoor areas of their establishments,” the Facebook post stated.
“Animals can transmit pathogens to humans through direct and/or indirect contamination of food and food-contact surfaces. Animals shed hair continuously and may deposit liquid or fecal waste, creating the need for vigilance and more frequent and rigorous cleaning efforts. Additionally, un-socialized animals may present a bite risk to other patrons.”
Schwartzkopf said a lot of restaurant owners in his district in the Rehoboth area want to bring back their policy of allowing dogs on patios, but are afraid to do so because they don’t trust that DPH won’t enforce the code.
He said they’re losing business because many families choose to dine at the beach because restaurants there are known to be dog-friendly.
In the more than 1,000 comments on the Facebook post, dog lovers spoke of how this would affect their pets if restaurants kept to the code.
One commenter wrote “We just bought our house in Delaware because we can take our dog with us to restaurants. He has a serious anxiety separation issue and loves being with us at all times…our dog is way more well behaved than the kid that is sitting next to us at an outdoor restaurant.”
Another Facebook user called the code hypocritical: “A dog sitting next to a table being quiet, etc is not OK BUT people puffing away on cigarettes IS OK?? We’re forced to move away from that so we can enjoy our meal and not breathe that crap in….so anyone anti-dog can move away from our pets.”
One commenter said the enlightening Facebook post won’t change anything; “We still enjoy bringing our dogs to the outdoor areas at restaurants that welcome them. Good luck getting that enforced.”
Others, however, were pleased to learn about the years old code.
One Facebook user wrote “Yes, who wants to eat and find dog hair in your food. When I cook at home my dog stays in the room ‘til I eat and clean the kitchen.”
Another wrote “Have you ever been seriously bitten by a dog? I have, so you can spare me all the stories about how nice your dog is, how gentle; I’ve heard it all.”
Some even pointed to pet allergies.
Most aren’t buying it, however.
“I have no doubt there are people out there who have allergies, but what have they done for the last 20 years? They weren’t even aware of the code and nobody was complaining for the last 20 years,” Schwartzkopf said.
A spokeswoman for DPH said the Facebook post was meant to serve as a reminder after a customer complained to DPH about an animal inside a restaurant.
She said DPH will continue the practice of not strictly enforcing the outdoor portion of the food code until “discussions around the policies associated with this issue have taken place.” She did not say what those discussions will involve, however.
She also said the department doesn’t comment on pending legislation.
Schwartzkopf said DPH has the power to eliminate the outdoor portion of the code without his legislation.
“The best they can do is tell us they’re looking at it, and they may not enforce it,” he said. “They’ve had enough time to do something one way or another.”