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Dogs Win at DC’s Bars

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Dogs Win at DC’s Bars

October 4, 2017

Not to be outdone by New York, where new city codes precluded pet-sitters from offering their services without the appropriate licenses, the District of Columbia began enforcing a little-known regulation prohibiting pets from being allowed on the premises of commercially licensed food establishments. D.C. Department of Health inspectors visited two locations with patios, leaving flyers informing owners that no animals would be allowed anywhere on the premises, including the patio, aside from service animals.

A D.C. Department of Health spokesperson told the Washingtonian in an email that the pet prohibition “is not a new regulation and DOH has enforced when observed. We inspected several locations based on consumer complaints about dogs.” As a result, owners of multiple establishments announced that they would no longer be allowing pets on their premises in order to comply with the code that would now be enforced.

Dog owners were incensed, and stories about the new crackdown generated an inordinate amount of backlash. With the speed that only seems to accompany dog-related policy problems, D.C. council members almost immediately responded that they were working on emergency legislation to revert to a permissive dog-patio framework that had been in effect.

This legislation was brought to consideration in yesterday’s hearing. In a refreshing recognition of the delineation between the proper role for government and what should be left to the free market, one of the sponsors said in the council hearing  that the District’s policymakers and officials “can’t divert attention away from [other] priorities by harassing tax generating private business owners on an issue that is not a public health problem… that issue should be left to the marketplace to decide.”

The Department of Health spokesperson referenced complaints about the presence of pets. Some people, perhaps because they have allergies, may not enjoy seeing or being around dogs when they are relaxing out on the patio with friends. Owners may not want to have to deal with the associated hassle. The decision about whether to allow the applicable pets should fall to the owners, and customers can decide which places suit their preferences.

The council decided to move in this direction, unanimously passing a proposed resolution that would shift the decision back to the bar and restaurant owners, who “may elect to permit dogs in outdoor dining areas or designated portions thereof, or in unenclosed sidewalk cafes.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser will now have to sign off on the legislation, but there are no signs that will be an obstacle.

While it is positive that council members were responsive to their constituents’ comments and acted promptly to rectify an overly prescriptive regulation, it is troubling that there are many instances of regulations on the books without anyone knowing about them. Establishment owners have been allowing dogs on their patios or outside areas without knowing that pets were in violation of existing codes.

Codes that existed might just not be enforced until media coverage or high profile complaints prompt officials to begin enforcement, and even then it might be selective. This dynamic opens up the possibility that some businesses will be treated differently than others, depending on how well they get on with enforcement and city officials. This adds to the opacity and regulatory uncertainty that owners already have to navigate.

The accompanying resolution recognizes the problems this situation can create for businesses, in which resources and time are allocated to sudden enforcement of regulations. It also lamented that the enforcement had suppressed business and harried customers at affected establishments.

As with New York’s pet-sitting requirements, this is a case of a regulatory environment that has grown to the point where it is possible no one involved knows that these codes are in place, or officials are just choosing to ignore them. Fortunately a swift resolution occurred in both situations, but most cases that do not involve dogs fail to generate the substantial amount of coverage and comments that prompted the legislative fixes.

At all levels of government policymakers and officials should exercise restraint when considering adding more regulations to the already complex framework, and continuously scrutinize existing provisions to identify rules that do not make sense or should be removed.

For now, it seems that people who like to bring their dogs with them to the patio or outside dining area in the Nation’s capital can continue to do so in places that choose to allow it, and that is a welcome start. 

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes

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