March 19 2012 | ADA IssuesBy Barbara De Lollis, USA TODAY
UPDATE, March 15, 6:13 pm: The U.S. Justice Department will grant the hotel industry at least a 60-day extension for complying with a new rule aimed at making existing hotel pools compliant with the 22-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act.
It's a decision that the hotel industry lobbied hard for at the 11th hour, as a number of hotel owners and managers suggested they might close their pools or fill in their whirlpools due to the uncertainty the new rules created.
The about-face from the federal government means that the rules for making existing hotel pools accessible to people with disabilities will not take effect on March 15, as originally planned when the hotel-pool-related rules were first announced in 2010.
The federal government sought to make public pools, including hotel pools, accessible for people with disabilities in 2010.
There are about 51,000 hotels in the USA, and the majority have some kind of a pool.
The department on Thursday evening issued a press release that confirms March 15 as the effective date for almost all of the new rules established in 2010. But at the bottom of the release, it says:
"Requirements for existing swimming pools will be extended for 60 days. The department will also publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with a 15-day comment period on a possible six-month extension in order to allow additional time to address misunderstandings regarding compliance with these ADA requirements."
The rule in question requires hotels to make their existing pools accessible by installing lifts, but hoteliers - and the American Hotel & Lodging Association - had been seeking clarity on some requirements, such as installation procedures and lift type, among other questions.
The confusion among hoteliers remained so great as of Thursday, March 15, that a major hotel insurer reported some clients were now talking of closing their pools.
"I'm talking to hotel (representatives) who are thinking about closing their pools until the confusion is settled," says Todd Seiders, director of risk management for Petra Risk Solutions. "This is the first time in the past several months that my clients have expressed that closing the pool is an option."
Petra Risk Solutions insures about 3,000 hotels in every state, ranging from mom-and-pop hotels to five-star resorts.
Best Western CEO David Kong had told USA TODAY earlier this week that some of Best Western hotel owners in the USA were talking about possibly filling in their whirlpools, although not the actual pools.
In response, the non-profit organization Open Doors is working on launching a 25-city tour on this very subject, says executive director Eric Lipp.
"Many hotel (managers) are like a deer in the headlights," Lipp told USA TODAY on Thursday. "They know (the deadline) is coming, but the things I'm hearing are 'Corporate's going to do it,' or 'Management company's going to do it.' They stare at you."
The non-profit works educating travel-industry companies on the needs of travelers with disabilities - a group that's been growing as the U.S. population ages.
This year, the American Hotel & Lodging Association - the industry's main lobby - has been pushing for a deadline extension, saying many hotels are not in compliance and that the government-issued guidance in January was too vague. But the Department of Justice told USA TODAY at that time that an extension was unlikely.
"They've had quite a bit of time to do their planning," says Eve Hill of the Justice Department. "If they have legitimate reasons in good faith that they can't comply, then that will be taken into account."
Open Doors plans to hold full-day meetings at a cost of about $125 per person where hotel managers or owners can ask specific questions about their individual properties, Lipp says.
"They want to talk to you one on one. They don't know who to ask," he says.
A pool lift costs $3,000 to $6,000. New hotels, which fall under different rules, are being constructed with built-in lifts.
The meaning of 'deadline'
Some in the disability community say that "March 15" wasn't actually a deadline after which hotels will be immediately penalized, and that this, too, could be prompting some confusion.
Maureen McCloskey, advocacy director of the veterans service organization Paralyzed Veterans of America, says that hotels have had an obligation to remove barriers since 1992, when the Americans With Disabilities Act went into effect.
The March 15 date - or, now, whenever the rules take effect - means that "pools are added to that list."
"So just as they would widen doorways or put in grab bars in bathrooms as they could afford to do so, the pool is another element that they provide access to if and when they can do it relatively easily and without much cost."
Pools are popular with guests
There is no dispute that for many hotels, the pool is a key feature that can help attract customers. But an unidentified number of existing hotel pools across the country do not have chair lifts to help some customers use them.
In Virginia Beach, Va., the local NBC affiliate, WAVY-TV 10, reported that many hotels along the popular oceanfront do not have chair lifts. The TV station quoted one wheelchair user as to why the federal regulations would make a difference to her when she is a hotel guest.
"The time it really brought it home for me was some friends and I saved up to go to a conference during the middle of the summer and the wheelchair-accessible room overlooked the non-accessible pool area," Lisbet Dula told WAVY-TV 10.
"It's... right to have the same access as anyone else to something you're paying for," she added.
Dula said she could not even sit near the pool, because steps blocked her access.
Some hotels, however, have already spent money on chair lifts to comply with the inevitable rule.
The general manager of Virginia Beach's family run Breakers Resort, Brad Capps, however, told the WAVY reporter that they, in fact, just installed a lift at a cost of $5,000. The hotel has an outdoor pool that operates seasonally and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.
"There's probably going to be some hotels saying they can't get them, or they're on backorder or not available," Capps said, echoing what the hotel association has told USA TODAY.
For the rules that did take effect on March 15, the Justice Department said they "will set new requirements for fixed or built-in elements in facilities such as detention facilities and courtrooms, amusement rides, boating facilities, golf and miniature golf facilities, swimming pools and play areas."