DOVER — Sorry, dog owners. Your four-legged friends are no longer allowed to come with you to restaurants and cafes in Delaware.
Technically, it’s not a change to state law, just a new focus on enforcement. But either way, the result is the same, and it’s got many Delawareans fired up.
Through a Facebook post, the Division of Public Health announced Aug. 2 live animals are prohibited from food establishments in the First State, with the exception of service animals and patrol dogs.
The notice, which followed an article in a weekly paper on pet-friendly eateries, quickly drew attention, with more than 1,000 comments as of Wednesday.
Emotional support pets are not counted as service animals.
A DPH spokeswoman in an email explained the policy:
“While DPH recognizes concerns food establishments and patrons may have about this issue, this is not a recent update to the food code. The Delaware Food Code prohibits pets — with the exception of service animals — in food establishments, which include outdoor service areas,” Jen Brestel wrote. “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.”
Public health officials are currently reviewing the state’s laws around food safety “to identify revisions needed to remain consistent with federal guidelines and public health best practices,” with no timetable for completion.
The Facebook post drew a mixed response: Many people argued dogs do not belong around food, citing allergies, bite risk and disease, while others protested the state is being overly harsh in enforcing an unnecessary and unfair rule.
A petition started by a Newark man requesting the state change the law had received more than 2,100 signatures as of Wednesday, with a target goal of 2,500.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, wrote on Facebook he was surprised by the news, saying he regularly brought his golden retriever to a beach restaurant when she was alive.
“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. “I’ve reached out to DPH to learn more about this — and to ask them to address restaurants’ and residents’ concerns.
“If necessary, I will sponsor legislation to return things to the status quo, so everyone can keep enjoying the lifestyle we’re accustomed to in our community.”
Marissa Cordell, the owner of easySpeak distillery and restaurant in Milford, said customers are not pleased with the change.
“It’s a bit crazy that we’ve all done it that way for a long time” and now cannot, she said.
According to Ms. Cordell, easySpeak was not contacted by DPH and only learned of the enforcement after seeing the agency’s Facebook post, which she thought was a joke at first.
While the company has an area out back where food is not served, meaning some customers can still sit with their dogs, Ms. Cordell said she believes business would suffer if not for that. Many people who stop by are tourists, some of whom are accompanied by pets, and being unable to serve that crowd would hurt the bottom line, she explained.
The increased enforcement doesn’t impact every restaurant, of course. Craig Feeney, the general manager of McGlynn’s Pub’s Dover location, was unaware of the policy until informed of it Wednesday.
While customers occasionally bring their dogs to sit with them on the patio, he doesn’t expect the change to drive people away from McGlynn’s.
But some eateries are advocating for the state to change the policy. 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.”
Because the General Assembly is out of session, any legislative change could not come until January at the earliest.