Clark County businesses in tight spot when it comes to dogs, cats

County health department fields increasing complaints about pets in eateries, grocery stores

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

Published:

 

By the numbers

Number of complaints to Clark County Public Health regarding animals in food service establishments:

2012: 3

2013: 7

2014: 13

2015: 7

2016: 15

2017: 18 (as of Oct. 26)

The golden retriever at the coffee shop. The feline in the backpack at the bar. The Pomeranian in the grocery store.

Clark County residents love sharing experiences with their pets. But while local humans enjoy bringing their four-legged friends along to grab a beer at a brewery or toting them into the grocery store, health officials say those visits run afoul of health code and put food establishments in a tough spot.

“It probably is viewed by some as an innocent thing, but the reality is, it puts the business in a precarious legal place,” said Joe Laxson, program manager for Clark County environmental public health.

That’s because Washington’s health code prohibits animals — with the exception of service animals — in food establishments. So customers who bring pets into restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores are, knowingly or not, violating health code and opening the business up to potential citations from the county health department.

Addressing the issue can be problematic for businesses that want to keep their customers happy but must also abide by health regulations. Add in the service animal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the situation becomes even more complicated.

“There’s a lot of gray area,” said Oren Kariri, food safety manager for New Seasons Market.

“For us, the most important thing is for us to be compliant with ADA and, at the same time, be compliant with our health regulations,” he said. “Pets, as much as we love them, we tend to not accept in the stores.”

Complaints increasing

Leaders at local restaurants and grocery stores say they’ve seen a trend the last few years of more and more people bringing animals into their establishments. Clark County Public Health is hearing more about it, too.

“We’ve seen a pretty stark increase in the number of complaints coming into our office,” Laxson said.

Over the previous five years, public health has received an average of nine complaints each year regarding animals in food service establishments. So far this year, however, health officials have fielded 18 complaints.

Confusion around what is and isn’t allowed appears to be at the root of the issue, Laxson said.

For starters, some people may not realize that bringing pets into food service establishments violates health code.

Washington health code prohibits animals in food establishments, which includes the facility’s kitchen and dining area — both indoor and outdoor seating areas. The code does, however, allow health inspectors some discretion with outdoor seating areas, as long as food safety isn’t compromised, Laxson said.

Go across the river to Portland, though, and the rules are different. Multnomah County has a variance that allows pets in some establishments, Laxson said.

Another source of confusion is service animals.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog or miniature horse that is trained to provide a service or task directly related to the person’s disability, such as a dog guiding a blind person or protecting a person having a seizure, according to the Department of Justice.

Animals that solely provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

The problem, some business owners say, is they don’t have any way to verify that a dog is a service animal and not a pet.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2008 and eliminated the requirements that dogs wear identifying vests or collars and that owners carry proof of professional training, said Michael Richardson, director of the Northwest ADA Center. The changes were made so that a person with an invisible disability wasn’t forced to walk around announcing their disability, he said.

Now there are only two questions that can legally be asked of someone: Is your dog required because of a disability? And what task has the animal been trained to perform?

While the changes reduced obstacles for people with disabilities, they have created some confusion, Richardson said.

“Many business owners don’t know what questions to ask, and they’re afraid they’re going to get a lawsuit, so they let anyone with an animal come in,” he said.

Awkward moments

When a customer enters Mill Creek Pub in Battle Ground with a dog, an employee will ask if the dog is a service animal. If the customer says “yes,” the employee doesn’t question what service the animal provides, said Russell Brent, Mill Creek Pub owner.

“It’s kind of pointless to ask,” he said.

When a customer tells an employee their dog is a service animal but there’s no requirement to provide any proof the dog has received the required training, it ties the hands of the establishment, Brent said. It also does a disservice to the organizations that offer high-quality training for service animals, he said.

“I think we need to honor the organizations that spend the time, talent and treasure to certify the service animals,” Brent said.

Like at Mill Creek, employees at New Seasons usually approach customers with dogs and ask if they’re service animals. Employees may or not follow up about the type of service the animal provides, Kariri said. Staff encourages people with pets to use the tie-up stations outside many of their stores, he said.

But confronting customers about their animals can be tricky, Kariri and Brent said. Employees don’t want to insult or intimidate customers by asking questions about potential disabilities, but they need to ask in order to ensure they’re meeting health code and ADA requirements.

“It is a delicate situation,” Brent said.

Official help sought

The increase in complaints has prompted Clark County Public Health to take a closer look at the issue. This summer, health officials reached out to various organizations in the state, including the Northwest ADA Center and the Washington Hospitality Association, to better understand challenges different stakeholders face, Laxson said.

Some larger organizations, such as grocery store chains, have already taken steps to increase awareness among customers about the rules and train their staff on how to handle the issue, Laxson said. Public Health hopes to come alongside other local businesses with fewer resources and see how it can help.

In general, Brent wants to see more discussion around requiring verification of professional training for service animals. At the local level, he hopes to see more opportunities for people to bring their pets to restaurants’ outdoor areas.

Kariri said he hopes to see Public Health take the lead on educating the community about the rules regarding pets in food establishments.

“The more that public health can do, the easier it will be on businesses,” Kariri said.

“We want to educate our customers about cheese and wine and coffee and healthy foods,” he added. “We don’t want to educate on these matters. That should be left to Public Health.”