It wasn’t so much the speed by which the D.C. Council last week favorably dispatched the issue of business owners deciding whether to allow customers to be accompanied by dogs on unenclosed sidewalk cafés and outdoor patios at bars and restaurants.
It was that city legislators – and you might want to be seated for this if unaware – voted to allow the marketplace to function unfettered by letting local venues, typically neighborhood-centric establishments, determine their policy based on proprietor preference and patron receptivity.
The Council acted quickly and, notably, without requiring yet another licensing application, approval process, public comment period, agency permit or business fees.
Most important, they did so without creating the regulatory hurdle of granting advisory neighborhood commissions, citizens associations and small ad-hoc groups of individuals to intervene by licensing protest to extract special restrictions or create a resulting competitive disadvantage among businesses that plague local hospitality operators through other existing permit protocols.
Sudden forays by the D.C. Department of Health, without advisory notification of an essentially unknown and previously unenforced rule, resulted in the agency ordering dining and drinking establishments welcoming dogs on outdoor space to immediately cease the practice. This provoked rapid Council response.
The enforcement action quickly proved to be an extremely unpopular blunder that generated howls of protest by business operators, canine owners and even those without a dog in the fight.
It took only a handful of days after agency inspectors initiated the crackdown for D.C. Council member Vincent Gray, joined by Brianne Nadeau, Charles Allen, and Brandon Todd, to introduce an “emergency” bill to expedite the policy change and accelerate its taking effect.
Announcement of the Council resolution and permanent legislation came with a clear admonition: “Unbelievably, the Department of Health’s limited time and resources are being marshaled to wage [a] War on Pets [and the] agency seems unable to properly prioritize life or death health care challenges over matters of far lesser concern.” Enterprise owners of all types, long weary of regulatory mandates by a government deficient in managing its own business operations, barked their approval.
The legislation, entitled “Dining with Dogs,” was unanimously approved. Passage prompted immediate indication by Mayor Muriel Bowser that she would sign the bill. The health department was directed to cease enforcement of the obscure prohibition.
In essence, dogs taught D.C. Council members and city regulators an important new trick – that a commonsense approach providing for business freedom of choice is bow-wow best.
Simple and sensible provisions include only that a sign be posted by venues choosing to allow dogs indicating they are welcome on outdoor spaces with an exterior entrance not requiring passage through an interior area, permit businesses to restrict types of dogs based on breed, size, or temperament, and that patrons keep their dogs in a carrier or on a leash at all times. Dogs are not allowed inside venues or in food preparation areas.
Quite the concept in a jurisdiction notorious for a bone-headed tendency to over-regulate community businesses and force them into the proverbial dog house of red tape and restriction.
It was a welcomed stance by District regulate-as-reflex elected officials and rule-makers known more for instituting layers of bureaucracy for both commerce and consumers – and, in this instance, canines.
It is not likely that legalizing the option to allow dogs on outdoor space will significantly increase the number of bars and restaurants adopting the policy. A sizable percentage of customers prefer dog-free environments. It is why most venues do not allow dogs on open-air sidewalk cafés or outdoor patios, or limited to certain days or during designated times on their event schedule.
What the Council’s action does do, however, is allow bar and restaurant owners the freedom to make an independent decision best suiting their business model while accommodating market demand and available commercial opportunity.
The D.C. Council and the city government should yap like that more often.