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Colorado lawmakers considering bill that could allow or prohibit dogs on restaurant patios

Posted at 1:24 PM, Feb 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-17 22:19:32-05

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DENVER — A new bill in the Colorado state legislature could pave the way for restaurants around the state to allow dogs on their outdoor patios.

House Bill 78, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, spells out certain rules restaurants would have to follow in order to allow dogs in their outdoor patio sections, like requiring the dogs to be on a leash or in a container. But it would also allow local municipalities to bar dogs from food establishments entirely.

Sen. Donovan and supporters of the bill say it will, if passed, offer restaurants a new way to cater to Colorado’s dog-friendly culture. However, some experts have raised health and safety concerns about the proposal. Denver7 is taking a 360 look on the issue of pups on restaurant patios.

Going to the dogs

At the Colorado state Capitol, more than a few dogs roam the historic halls.

“A lot of people know that I’m a big dog lover. I bring my dog to work almost every day and so he’s kind of a fixture,” said Sen. Donovan.

Like many, Donovan likes to take her dog with her just about everywhere, including on hikes. But when it comes to allowing dogs on restaurant patios, she recently discovered that for years, the state has more or less remained silent.

“The state doesn’t have rules on it. That has resulted in some confusion about if it’s allowed or not because does silence mean yes or does silence mean no,” Sen. Donovan said. “I just want to make it a little bit easier for small businesses.”

Donovan hopes this bill will offer some clarity on the rules for small businesses that want to allow the option for their patrons.

However, the bill will not require restaurants to allow dogs on their patios. It also allows cities and counties to prohibit dogs on restaurant patios within their jurisdictions.

Denver’s dog days

For nearly six years, Denver has been one of the only cities in the state to allow dogs on restaurant patios under certain circumstances. The rules are different than the ones that govern service animals.

The restaurants must have a separate entrance for dogs to get to the patio so that they do not have to walk through the restaurant. The facility also must have signs up designating what is and is not a dog-friendly area.

“The dogs do have to be on a leash. They have to be monitored, so they can’t just be running around in the restaurant area,” said Juan Gamez-Briceno, a public health investigator for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.

The dogs cannot be near any food or drink handling stations or waste stations. There are also rules prohibiting employees from petting the dogs while they are on duty.

“Sanitation is one particular issue, disinfecting. Having a plan in place to clean if there is an issue with the dog, and training staff, is very important as well,” Gamez-Briceno said.

Restaurants are also subject to routine inspections by the health department to ensure that they are following the rules.

Even if the state bill passes, Denver’s ordinance will not be affected because it is a home rule municipality.

Gamez-Briceno says since the city changed its rules, there haven’t been any issues with the dogs being allowed on patios and the idea is growing in popularity at Denver restaurants.

For the city of Denver, Gamez-Briceno says the rules it already has in place are working.

Puppy Proponents

Over the past several years, one of the most consistent calls to the Colorado Restaurant Association is restaurants inquiring how they can start allowing dog on their patios, according to Nick Hoover, the manager of government affairs for the CRA.

“From the restauranteurs that we’ve spoken to about this, there’s been a general acceptance by the public about it,” Hoover said.

Many of the calls the CRA receives come from restaurants outside of Denver asking how they can apply for a variance from the state food code to allow dogs on their premises.

“Last year the state health department issued a statewide variance that allows for a restaurant to, under certain circumstances, allow dogs on their patios that are not service animals,” Hoover said. “This bill will codify into law the rule that has already gone into effect for everyone.”

Before the statewide variance, Hoover said restaurants were being forced to have an uncomfortable conversation with some customers who brought their dogs in with them.

“There have been cases in the past when someone would identify their dog as a service animal that isn’t a service animal and that puts restaurants in an awkward position,” Hoover said.

On one hand, the restaurants could be violating the state health code by allowing a dog on the premises. On the other hand, the restaurant could be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for not allowing the dog (if it truly was a service animal) at the restaurant.

Hoover and the CRA are in support of the bill and are planning on testifying in favor of it at the Capitol because they believe it will offer restaurants more options for their patrons.

More bark than bite

The Watering Bowl was one of the first restaurants to allow dogs on its patios in the city of Denver, doing so even before there was a specific ordinance allowing it.

Owner Justin Henry says it has been an uphill battle for his business for years, resulting in dozens of citations.

“It’s been a constant fight with municipalities because nobody has ever done this before. So the fact that the state is now addressing these regulations is fascinating,” Henry said.

The fact that there have been so few state rules outlining exactly how restaurants can allow dogs on their patios has been of particular concern for Henry.

“The barriers to entry are grand and not defined. That’s the biggest problem this industry has,” he said.

So far, Henry says he has spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on legal fees. While he believes this bill is a big leap forward, Henry says at this point, it’s more bark than bite.

“It has no teeth. It doesn’t outline the conditions that we as operators need to follow. It doesn’t give the rules,” Henry said.

It also won’t change anything for his business since it falls under Denver’s ordinances.

Henry also enforces his own set of strict rules at The Watering Bowl to keep customers and pups safe.

“If your dog shows any kind of aggression whatsoever, you are told to leave, you’re not asked to leave, you are just not welcome here. We only deal with the good people and the good dogs, and our track record supports that,” Henry said.

Henry says he would like to see more guidance from the state on exactly how to make these businesses compliant.

“Tell us what you want, give us that list, that 30 things of ‘here’s the fences and here is the zoning and here is the insurance,’” he said.

Still, Henry says he supports the legislation for the industry as a whole and hopes other businesses will have an easier run of things if it becomes law.

Health and safety aspects

There are some health and safety risks to take into consideration when allowing animals to come to food establishments.

Dr. David Dyjack put together a study in 2013 to look at the public health risks of allowing animals at food outlets.

The researchers determine that the likelihood of the transmission of disease from an animal to a human in an outdoor seating area of a restaurant was low. Dr. Dyjack said he would be much more worried about the risks if the animals were allowed indoors.

There are some health risks associated with bringing animals to restaurants.

“Hypothetically, you could be exposed to bacteria. Hypothetically, you could be exposed to a virus. Hypothetically, you could be exposed to a parasite … to a fungal or fungus,” Dr. Dyjack said.

If someone came to a restaurant where dogs were permitted who is immune-compromised or asthmatic, the potential exposure to these things could pose serious health risks.

“I believe the likelihood of the overall risk of something significant happening to a dining member of the public is remote. I believe when something severe potentially happens just going to be very severe,” Dr. Dyjack said.

He’s more concerned about some of the safety risks dogs in restaurants pose — with water bowls for instance.

“That bowl of water is inevitably spilled and or some water escapes it and then you have a slip, trip and fall condition for the working staff as well as other patrons,” Dr. Dyjack said.

He’s also concerned with the temperament of the animals. Unlike service dogs, which undergo a series of training to keep their temperament and actions under control, if all dogs are allowed on patios, there’s no guarantee of the same type of training.

“I’m significantly concerned about aggressive or uncontrolled animals in outdoor patios,” Dr. Dyjack said.

In 2018, a woman was bit in the face by a dog on the patio of the Rockabillies Bar. The interaction was caught on the restaurant’s surveillance camera. Soon after that, the restaurant and bar stopped allowing dogs on its patios.

Something Dr. Dyjack would like to see in the state legislature’s bill is a vaccination requirement for dogs that are allowed on restaurant patios — just in case someone is injured.

He would also like to see lawmakers add a provision to the bill that would require the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to monitor the implementation of the bill if it is passed into law.

“I believe there ought to be some support for the CDPHE to monitor this and to collect data and to determine whether, in fact, the dining public is remaining safe under this more liberal dog eating environment,” Dr. Dyjack said.

Ruff Call

Tens of thousands of Coloradans have dogs; many families consider their pups members of the family and like to take them everywhere they go.

HB20-078 is hardly the most controversial this legislative session but it is a bill that is gaining attention.

Supporters say this will help small businesses be able to accommodate patrons in new ways. The city of Denver is already finding a way to make it work. Some restaurants say they are still struggling even with the city’s rules.

However, some are worried about the health and safety aspects of allowing animals on restaurant patios.

In the end, it will be up to the Colorado legislature to determine whether this is something they want to allow restaurants across the state to do.