[See Update at end of article]
By JOHN T. WARD
A sudden ban on dogs at the Red Bank Farmers’ Market caught vendors and local officials by surprise Sunday.
The ban, by the Monmouth County Regional Health Commission #1, appears to have outraged some shoppers, who told vendors they would not return unless their dogs were welcome at the market, which is held weekly in a parking lot at the Galleria at Red Bank on West Front Street.
News of the ban came within 24 hours of reports that the health commission warned vendors at the Red Bank Community Block Party on Drs. James Parker Boulevard that they would be shut down if they didn’t comply with agency rules, Mayor Pasquale Menna tells redbankgreen.
In neither case had the borough administration gotten any communication about the actions from the commission, which Menna called “unacceptable behavior.”
The ban on dogs was relayed by phone from a health commission inspector on Friday, said George Sourlis, who runs the market for the family-owned Galleria building.
He said he was told the agency had received a complaint that, a week before, a dog had urinated on a food item for sale. “We were told we were no longer able to have dogs, and we implemented that,” Sourlis told redbankgreen.
“It’s the first time that’s happened to us,” Sourlis said of the directive. The farmers’ market has operated for 15 years, he said.
But David Henry, the top executive at the health commission, said he was unaware of any recent activity regarding either the market or the block party by his office. He added, however, that he had not spoken to the inspector responsible for the borough, who was off Monday.
Henry said agency rules ban dogs, except for service dogs, from indoor food establishments, but that he was unaware of any rules prohibiting them at open-air markets.
Sourlis said he was able to alert market vendors of the ban on Friday, so that those who bring their own dogs to sit with them over the course of the five-hour day would leave them home.
Moving through the crowd on Sunday, Sourlis said he was surprised to find that shoppers welcomed the ban.
“I’m going to say the initial reaction was very positive from the general public,” he said. “It turns out a lot of people seem to like not having dogs around.” He said he was not aware of any complaints, but would expect that there would be some.
Several vendors, however, said they got an earful.
“Two of my regulars who are there every Sunday at 9, 9:30, said they would not come back” if the ban wasn’t lifted, said Corey Manuel, a mushroom seller who’s been a market regular for three years. “If two customers told every vendor, that’s potentially a lot of people.”
Manuel said he was “neutral” on the issue, having seen both well-behaved dogs and others that are often “up on their hind legs” trying to snag food.
The owner of Schnitzie’s Snacks, a baked-goods stand for dogs, said she was “upset, but so is everybody else from the market.”
“Two of my customers expressed that they would not be back,” said the owner, who asked that her name be withheld. “I don’t understand this. It seems so petty.”
“It’s got the vendors upset, understandably,” said Menna, adding that he heard complaints Monday from both market vendors and organizers of the block party, which had been postponed a week by a rainout. Organizers claimed they were told, “if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, we’re going to shut you down,” Menna said.
The two events “call into question decisions that could have been handled diplomatically, rather than imperiously,” said Menna. “You don’t go around smacking people like that.”
The commission is a shared-services organization that provides environmental and public health inspections to 21 towns in Monmouth County.
Menna said he would like to extricate Red Bank from the commission’s purview and have inspections taken over by the Monmouth County Health Department.[Update: David Henry, executive director of the Monmouth County Regional Health Commission #1, tells redbankgreen that the allegation about an agency inspector threatening to shut down the Red Bank Community Block Party “was not valid based on my investigation.]