Key West weighs doggie dining

KEY WEST — Cute Bubba and 100-pound Angus have hung out together for years on the floor of the Schooner Wharf Bar slurping water while their owners sipped cocktails and swilled beer.

But for the past several weeks the chihuahua, lab mix and all other four-legged patrons have been banned from the Key West watering hole — whose slogan is “Hang with the Big Dogs” — following a fine issued by a new state health inspector.

That could change soon. A proposed ordinance that would allow dogs at outdoor portions of restaurants that obtain a permit and follow health and safety guidelines will go before the Key West City Commission on Tuesday night.

The City of Miami passed a similar canine dining ordinance in 2007.

“Key West was the best dog friendly town on the planet, and now it’s not,” said California tourist Chuck Brantley, who rarely goes anywhere on vacation without his springer spaniel Guinness by his side. “But,” Brantley said, “I think they’ll fix it.”

Evalena Worthington, co-owner of the Schooner Wharf Bar, is leading an all-paws-on-deck effort for passage of the ordinance, which allows dogs at outdoor portions of restaurants that get the permit and follow guidelines that include providing hand sanitizers at every table, checking for rabies shots tags of pooches, immediately cleaning up doggie waste and making sure owners keep their canines on leashes and on the floor.

The proposed ordinance also requires restaurants that want the city permit to carry at least $1 million in liability insurance. Restaurants that don’t want dogs don’t need to apply for a permit.

Key West Mayor Craig Cates said he supports the ordinance, which simply legalizes a practice that has been going on for decades throughout the tropical island.

Cates also said the city now must take action in light of a lawsuit recently won by a Massachusetts woman who tripped over a dog at Turtle Kraals Restaurant & Bar four years ago and was awarded $18,000 for injuries and suffering by a jury this April.

“The world is sue-crazy and messed it up for everybody,” he said.

“We have to go and pass the ordinance because some of the bars and restaurants (including the Schooner Wharf Bar) that have allowed dogs are on city-leased property.”

Gene Smith, owner of the Southernmost Restaurant Group that includes Turtle Kraals and five other Key West restaurants, also has banned dogs from his establishments since the jury said the restaurant was 50 percent negligent in the lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts tourist.

The state has a long-standing but rarely enforced law that bans dogs from public restaurants and bars.

But any city or county now can override the law under authority granted by the state’s “doggie dining” law, which began as a three-year pilot program in 2006 and was signed into permanent law last year.

The state Department of Business and Professional Regulations, which oversees restaurant health inspections, said only three cities have officially filed local doggie dining ordinances with them.

But according to the website, at least 27 Florida cities and two Florida counties, Manatee and Osceola, have passed such ordinances. Some tourist-friendly cities like Miami Beach have many outdoor restaurants that allow dogs, but have not passed such an ordinance.

Key West City Commissioner Mark Rossi said he’ll support the proposed ordinance. But don’t expect to bring dogs into his bar complex, which includes Durty Harry’s and Rick’s along the main tourist drag of Duval Street. Rossi banned dogs from his complex about 13 years ago after being sued by a patron who was bitten when he got in the middle of two fighting dogs.

“It can be a problem if people get buzzed and step on a dog’s foot,” he said. “And I’ve seen dogs lift their legs.”