More than 90,000 people are expected to attend the South Beach Wine & Food Festival this weekend.
The festival has implemented a host of pandemic-related precautions, including encouraging mask-wearing, reduced capacity at events, and digital health screenings (read all COVID precautions in place here).
But there is one safety precaution that is not only effective — it's adorable.
Heather Junqueira of Bioscent, Inc., will bring four of her 15 COVID-detecting beagles to the festival. The dogs — Buddy, Rosie, Cupid, and Noel — will be tasked with sniffing out and tagging any festivalgoer that may be positive for COVID-19. If the dogs find a scent, that person will be asked to undergo a rapid COVID test (available on-site at the festival). If the test is positive, the person will not be granted admission and the ticket price will be credited toward an event at the 2023 festival.
Junqueira, who owns a total of 50 working dogs at her facility in Myakka City, southeast of Bradenton, says she was training her beagles to detect cancer in humans when the pandemic hit. "I had a doctor reach out to me, asking if a dog could be trained to detect a virus," she says.
Aware that dogs had been used to detect swine flu in the past, Junqueira got to work.
"I started reaching out to biorepositories looking for samples," she says, adding that this was in the very early stages of the pandemic. She obtained some nasal swabs and did a study to see if the dogs could detect COVID-19. "The accuracy rates were in the high 90s, percentage-wise, for sensitivity to COVID," she says.
Junqueira and her dogs have attended events in Atlanta and Texas and reached out to Florida International University (FIU), which currently operates a detection dog program that certifies drug and bomb detection dogs. The dog handler wanted to see if FIU would put together a COVID-detection certification process in place. "They have a great representation in the canine scent detection world," she says, noting that representatives came to her facility and double-blind tested the dogs for accuracy.
Junqueira was then connected to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which raises funds for FIU's Chaplin School of Hospitality Management. The festival decided to hire Junqueira's detection dogs for the weekend. COVID-sniffing dogs were deployed last year at the festival but these beagles are more effective than last year's working dogs, Junqueira says. And they possess another key attribute, as well.
"German shepherds are very trainable, but they are used for the dual purpose of scent detection and police work. Beagles are solely scent dogs. Plus, they're cute."
The "bagels" — two males and two females — will be located at a special puppy booth area near the entrance to the festival tents. Says Junqueira: "We need to socialize the puppies, so why not have people play with them? It's a win-win."
The bagel puppies haven't been named yet, but Junqueira is thinking of naming them after some of the celebrity chefs at the festival — so be sure to suggest a name for one of the cuties.
One suggestion from the New Times peanut gallery: Rachael Ray. The Food Network celeb is a major dog lover and has her own line of Nutrish food for pets, so there might even be a sponsorship deal in the making.
South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Through Sunday, February 27 at various locations. Visit SOBEWFF.org for ticket information.