Dogs may soon return to restaurants in Delaware

easySpeak distillery and restaurant in Milford displays a notice instructing customers they cannot bring dogs inside. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Turns out you soon may be able to bring your dogs to restaurants after all.

In August, the Division of Public Health began stepping up enforcement of a little-known policy prohibiting most canines from food establishments. Now, the agency is proposing changes to the laws governing food safety in the state, including one that would allow pups “in designated OUTDOOR SPACES that are not used for food storage or preparation, when a person controls the animal and if a health or safety hazard will not result from the presence or activities.”

Every month, the state publishes a list of proposed changes to regulations, which, unlike laws, can be adjusted by a state agency rather than the General Assembly. Among the items on December’s list is one stating DPH intends to replace the Delaware food regulations with the federal 2017 food code, with a few alterations.

The change would allow individuals to bring their furry four-legged friends (only dogs, though) to a restaurant or similar establishment’s “porch, patio, deck or other structure with less than two contiguous walls that does not require travel through any indoor areas, including for entrance and exit.”

The increased enforcement of the policy, which stemmed from an article in a weekly paper on pet-friendly eateries, prompted more than a thousand comments after the division made the announcement. Some defended the decision, while others protested it was unfair.

Marissa Cordell, the owner of easySpeak distillery and restaurant in Milford, said at the time customers are not pleased with the change, noting she initially thought the announcement was a joke. The Wheelhouse, a Lewes restaurant, on Facebook urged residents to contact their lawmakers “so we can possibly get our furry friend back on the deck.”

Apparently, few groups in Delaware are more formidable than the dog lobby: Just a few weeks after the controversy, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, filed a bill to allow leashed dogs in outdoor areas at breweries and eating establishments.

“I know how residents and visitors thoroughly enjoy bringing their dogs with them to grab a coffee, bagel or sandwich and sit outside their favorite establishment,” he wrote on Facebook. “I’ve reached out to DPH to learn more about this — and to ask them to address restaurants’ and residents’ concerns.”

Attempts to contact Rep. Schwartzkopf, the Wheelhouse and a state health spokeswoman Thursday were unsuccessful.

At the time, DPH said it would be reviewing the policy and would likely make changes in the future but defended its decision.

“The Delaware Food Code prohibits pets — with the exception of service animals — in food establishments, which include outdoor service areas,” spokeswoman Jen Brestel wrote in an email. “To date, inspectors have not strictly enforced the outdoor portion of the food code, and will continue that practice until discussions around the policies associated with this issue have taken place.

“Food establishment owners should be aware of the potential health and safety risks of allowing animals in the outdoor areas of their establishments. 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.”

The regulation can be viewed at http://regulations.delaware.gov or by calling DPH at 744-4951. A public hearing on the possible changes will be held Jan. 16 in Dover, and individuals can also submit comments to DPH by mailing them to Alanna Mozeik at 417 Federal Street in Dover or emailing Alanna.Mozeik@delaware.gov.

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