We are a nation of laws. Without rules, our society, culture and institutions would not exist.
Where we run into problems is when laws are written unclearly or with no clear system in which to enforce that law.
If a police officer, when making a traffic stop, were not allowed by law to ask for proof of your right to drive or identity, he would be unable to cite you for whatever infraction you may have commited. As a result, the traffic laws would be ineffective and unenforceable.
Massachusetts General Law Chapter 272, Section 98A is as good an example of a toothless law as I have ever seen. The decision by City of Salem Health Agent Larry Ramdin to suddenly enforce this law in regard to outdoor patios in Salem restaurants, while well intentioned, seems to be a waste of time and resources.
For the last 15 years, more than a few Salem restaurants have become known for their hospitality to local dog owners and their pets. Outdoor patios offer water, biscuits and, in one case, even a small doggy menu. Sunny weekend days bring these folks and their animals out in great numbers.
If you were to walk around the South End in Boston, you would see the same sights that are seen here in Salem — dogs and their human companions relaxing around a table on a patio for some cool refreshments and a little socializing.
Larry Ramdin, whose job it is to enforce health laws, told me "there have been complaints," regarding this issue, including some from business owners. He also stated that "there is a regulatory system in place for enforcement of any part of the food code." That system would inculde punitive fines.
The fascinating part is, while restaurant staff are allowed to ask if an animal is a service animal and also to ask which disability the animal is trained for, they cannot under any circumstances ask for documentation of that training. The Health Agent, or any other municipal or state enforcement agent, is also limited to those two questions.
If you cannot verify the animal's legal status, how can you enforce the law?
Another interesting aspect here is that there are over 15 separate agencies that will certify your animal as a service animal without any training, certification or identification required. All they ask for is a small fee. That fee can range from $35 up to $200.
So, what we have is an unenforceable law that allows groups of charlatans to make a living by issuing phony certifications. The fitness industry is overrun by these types, and now it would seem that they have found another scam to run on the general public.
I am not a dog person. I never have been. I tolerate them, and have even learned to like a few despite the many clueless owners who confuse their dogs with humans. In this case, however, I must side with these beasts of leisure.
A way should be found to create an exemption for restaurants that choose to be dog-friendly within the confines of their outdoor spaces. We did, after all, create an exemption for social clubs in Salem to continue to allow smoking after the smoking ban was implemented in 2001.
Which is more harmful to general health — clouds of toxic fumes or a few dogs lying around on a patio?
Larry Ramdin has expressed an interest in working to find a way to create that exemption.
If a responsible dog owner can control his animal, and the business ensures that the space used is thoroughly cleaned afterwards, who is really being hurt?
After all, if I decide to acquire a miniature horse to help me carry around my stuff (I am getting older and more frail), which is allowed by ADA regulations, it would be nice if my own beast of burden were allowed a little canine company.
Sometimes a law is just a law, but other times, it just a waste of everyone's time.