OKEECHOBEE — With all the support animals turning up in public places in recent years, restaurant owners find themselves with a dilemma. There have been stories about peacocks, donkeys, turkeys and most recently, an alligator being used as support animals.
According to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), service animals are always allowed inside restaurants, but support animals are not.
The dilemma for the business owners is how to know the difference.
The problem came to light recently in Okeechobee when a disabled veteran entered a local restaurant with his dog.
The dog had no signage, and the veteran had no papers to show the restaurant owner, so the man was asked to leave. Patrons who witnessed this and who heard about it later were upset and threatened to boycott the restaurant.
However, the restaurant owners have been hyper-vigilant about dogs in their restaurants after visits from the DBPR explaining that dogs are not allowed inside eating establishments including in outdoor seating areas.
According to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), only miniature horses and dogs are recognized as service animals, so if anyone comes in with a peacock or gator, you can rightly assume it is not a service animal. Contrary to popular belief, restaurant staff do have the right to question the presence of the service animal. They can ask two questions:
You cannot ask the customer what their disability is. You cannot ask to see certification for the service dog. The dog is not required to wear a vest identifying them as a service animal. The service animal is not required to be on a leash.
Even if local law prohibits animals, the animal is still allowed access.
They can enter dining areas, waiting areas, restrooms and outdoor eating areas.
Not only can you not ask to see a dog’s certification, but the animal is not even required to be certified. It only needs to be able to perform the task, be housebroken and controllable.
Webstaurant Store blog answers some common questions on this subject:
What can I do if a service animal bothers another customer?
A service animal should be under the control of its handler but in the event that a service dog barks, growls, or acts out and bothers another customer, you do have some options.
What If another guest is allergic to a service dog?
If a customer expresses concern with a service animal due to allergies or fear, you may offer that customer a new table farther away from the service animal. You may not relocate or isolate the customer with disabilities.
Can I charge a maintenance or cleaning fee for service animals?
As a business owner, you may not charge a maintenance surcharge or cleaning fee to a customer with disabilities for their service animal. The only time a fee may be considered is if your business usually charges a fee for damages and the service animal ends up damaging something while on your property. A service animal would also be excluded from a pet fee if you require that from your guests as they are not considered pets.
According to the DBPR, “the law allows cities and counties in Florida to create a licensing structure to opt into legalizing dogs at outdoor portions of restaurants. Prior to this law, only service dogs were allowed anywhere on a restaurant’s premises. Local governments must first enact an ordinance allowing dogs in specified outdoor patio areas, and Florida law requires the local government to issue a permit to the establishment before dogs are allowed. Enforcement of Florida law and administrative code regarding animals in restaurants has not changed since the Florida Legislature passed the Dixie Cup Clary Local Control Act in 2006. Please contact your city or county government to inquire if a local ‘doggie dining’ ordinance is in effect and for information on ‘doggie dining’ permitted establishments in your area.”
Mayor Dowling Watford said to his knowledge, Okeechobee has never enacted a doggy dining law.
The veteran involved in the recent encounter in Okeechobee said he did provide papers for his dog, even though he knew he was not required to do so.