SALT LAKE CITY — Dogs may soon be welcome at some eateries that have outside dining if a Salt Lake County initiative continues to advance.
Modeled after allowances on the books in Dallas since 2008, the proposal would let eateries apply for a variance to allow dogs if their outdoor dining areas meet conditions that address public health concerns.
"My first thought was that I don't think I would eat at a place that has animals," said Bluffdale Mayor and Salt Lake County Board of Health member Derk Timothy. "But now I think it should be a decision based on their customer base."
He said he could see niche establishments on either side of the idea of welcoming pooches on their patios.
Board member and Salt Lake County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw said niche allowance factored into his thinking when he first proposed the idea a month ago. The health board voted unanimously to advance the proposal toward a public hearing, probably in May.
Conditions Dallas imposes are focused on public health issues: Food or drinks cannot be prepared in the patio area where dogs are allowed; servers cannot pet the dogs; floors have to be mopped or hosed down every six hours; and dog messes must be cleaned up within five minutes. Dogs have to be on a leash and cannot be fed while on a restaurant patio, but they can be given water from a disposable container.
At this point, Dallas has 46 dog-friendly eateries.
The move may help set guidelines for eateries currently caught between a dog and a health violation that do not want to offend customers who are already bringing their animals to places like coffee shops that have tables and chairs outdoors.
Dog owners who take their animals into places the health department says they shouldn't are part of a bigger problem for food retailers, like grocery stores.
"It puts us in a very difficult spot," said Smith's Food and Drug spokeswoman Marsha Gilford, who said dogs are not welcome inside.
What if customers pet the dog then handle food in the store? What if the dog piddles on the floor? "Sometimes they put dogs in the (shopping cart) seats where small children sit. It's just not a good idea," she said.
A store manager who doesn't want to offend a dog-owning customer by asking them to take the dog out may get a complaint later when another customer takes offense and contacts the health department. "People have complained to the county, and they put us on notice not to allow dogs in."
Service dogs accompanying a customer with a disability are already allowed in restaurants and grocery stores under provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But some dog owners exploit the ADA rules to take dogs where they shouldn't.
"The downside of the ADA as it's currently written is there are no provisions to determine whether a dog is a legit service animal," said Joanne Ritter, spokeswoman for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Sniffing out a bogus story about a dog being a service animal might seem easy if the customer then asks to read a menu, but there are also service dogs that assist the deaf, seizure dogs and dogs that accompany people with psychiatric problems.
The Guide Dogs organization doesn't pit one group of dog owners against another, but has seen "a push back" for allowing service animals in cases where businesses have seen abuses. "Then it becomes a serious problem for people who use guide or service animals," Ritter said.
As for the restaurant patio idea, Ritter said dogs that are out of control are a hazard to guide dogs and their handlers, and that an unattended dog leashed to a tree outside a restaurant might be a larger hazard to a blind person with a guide dog than encountering someone's pet on a restaurant patio. "I would say responsibility is a key. Responsible dog owners," she said.
Becky Andrews, a marriage and family therapist in Bountiful who is blind and uses a guide dog, said encountering dogs that are not well behaved is a top concern when she goes out.
"People who are bringing their animals out are hopefully responsible pet owners and careful, but it is a concern," she said. "I think, to me, a bigger concern than this issue is the loose dogs that are out there."
The next question, from Board of Health member Tom Anderson: "What about cats?"