Hotels, rec centers try to slow pool access regs

Published 10:39 am Wednesday, April 18, 2012

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Owners and managers of swimming pools at hotels, city recreation centers and public parks are scrambling to install mechanical chair lifts to comply with new federal requirements that all public pools be accessible to disabled swimmers.

Some hotels fear the cost of the equipment or fines for noncompliance could put them out of business, and an industry lobbyist says others may close their pools this summer if they can’t upgrade in time, though the government can offer more time to those having trouble paying for it. Swimmers with disabilities say the changes are overdue.

“I couldn’t get into the pool without it,” said Karyn Kitchen of Savannah, who has multiple sclerosis and relies on a poolside chair lift at the Chatham County Aquatic Center for her physical therapy workouts up to four times a week.

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Adding to the problem is a backlog of orders created by the rush to meet a May deadline. Harry Spirides ordered lifts last month for the hotel he owns on Georgia’s largest public beach and was told they should arrive in late April. He expects to pay $12,000 for the lifts at the Ocean Plaza Beach Resort on Tybee Island.

“Our supplier is backed up with orders,” said Spirides. “Everybody’s rushing to comply; everybody wants to comply. But when you have tens of thousands of swimming pools that have to be retrofitted with these lifts, it takes time.”

Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2010 say pools must be upgraded with chair lifts, essentially mini cranes that move wheelchair users into the water. The initial deadline was March 16, but confusion over the details and pool owners’ insistence for more time caused the Justice Department to give them until May 21.

The law doesn’t affect private clubs or pools owned by neighborhood associations that aren’t open to the public.

It’s a massive and expensive undertaking. The Association of Pool and Spa Professionals says its research shows that between 235,000 and 310,000 pools require the upgrade. Manufacturers estimate the lifts run $3,500 to $6,500, and installation can double those costs. Altogether, owners could face combined costs exceeding $1 billion.

Still, whatever hurdles pool operators face will ensure fewer obstacles for thousands of disabled swimmers.

After a car crash left Beth Kolbe unable to walk 12 years ago, she took up swimming and went on to compete in college and on the U.S. Paralympic team in 2008. Despite her athleticism, she needs a person’s help or a lift to access a pool.

Kolbe says when she visits pools, she usually takes a friend to avoid asking for help from lifeguards, who often seem uncomfortable lifting her.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a pool and they have a lift but nobody knows how to use it — it’s in the corner and probably broken,” said Kolbe, a 26-year-old student at Stanford Law School in California.

Once the requirements take effect, the Justice Department will investigate complaints and can fine businesses up to $55,000 for the first offense and double that for further violations. Pools operated by local governments don’t face monetary penalties but are subject to federal oversight.

The government can give pools more time if they show financial hardship and have a plan to save up for the equipment.

Pool owners say they’re not opposed to making accessibility upgrades, but argue they need more time — especially after a clarification to the requirements in January.

The Justice Department now says chair lifts must be bolted down. That declaration came as most hotels were buying portable lifts that don’t require expensive installation and can be wheeled into storage until a guest needs them, said Kevin Maher of the American Hotels and Lodging Association.

The group argues that fixed chair lifts pose a risk to children who are tempted to play on them. Maher, the association’s vice president for government relations, said hoteliers fear their insurance rates could increase.

The association is urging the Justice Department to reconsider portable lifts and extend the deadline. Without more time, Maher said, some hotels may close their pools this summer rather than risk lawsuits or fines.

“Whether they actually do it, I don’t know,” Maher said. “It’s a notion pool owners and operators are contemplating.”

In Desert Hot Springs, Calif., the requirements have created an uproar among owners of boutique inns built around mineral hot springs. Some retreats have only six or 10 rooms, but have multiple pools at varying temperatures to give guests a sampling of the waters.

“If you have three pools that’s $18,000 plus tax” to attach a chair lift to each, said Bruce Abney, owner of the 12-room El Morocco Inn & Spa. “That’s just huge for us and would put some of us under, I’m afraid.”

If the 20 hotels there could share portable lifts, it would satisfy the requirements and protect their bottom line, said Judy Bowman, owner of Living Waters Spa.

“I’ve never had a request for a pool lift in eight and a half years. It seems excessive,” said Bowman, who has nine rooms and six condos.

For large chains such as Hilton or Holiday Inn, the challenge is more likely about time than money because of their deep pockets.

But chains can also get bogged down in bureaucracy, said Mehmet Erdem, a professor who studies hotel operations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Corporate headquarters have to work with management companies, building owners and others to make sure upgrades are done uniformly and without tarnishing their brands.

“The challenge is when we have 1,700 hotels and 200 are corporate owned, 500 are franchised and their others are managed by second- or third-tier companies,” Erdem said.

Twenty-four senators sided with the hoteliers in a March letter urging Attorney General Eric Holder to postpone the deadline and essentially start over with a comment and rulemaking process.

John McGovern, an Illinois-based consultant who helps local governments comply with accessibility laws, said many municipal pools have had lifts for years. He’s never heard a child getting hurt on the equipment.

McGovern said most municipal pools that still need upgrades should be able to find the money. Some smaller cities with tight budgets might have to put off the upgrades, he said, but they should still be able to remain open.

Mark Perriello of the American Association of People With Disabilities said pools have had plenty of time. The law changes were announced more than 18 months ago. He also said portable lifts miss the point — that disabled people should have access without asking for help.

“There are people in the industry who do not want to do this,” Perriello said.

Many owners procrastinated, causing orders to back up. Margaret McGrath, vice president of marketing for pool equipment maker S.R. Smith, said the Oregon-based company hired extra workers to handle the influx of orders.

“We’ve been beating the drum and for a long time, as is human nature, people put it off,” McGrath said.

Orders — mostly for portable lifts — piled up so quickly that requests the company could normally fill within days started taking up to three weeks, McGrath said. A few weeks later orders dropped noticeably after the government mandated bolted-down chairs.

“It created a lot of uncertainty,” McGrath said. “And when people are uncertain they just stop.”

In the Atlanta suburbs, Bob McCallister is in charge of getting Cobb County’s pools ready for summer. He’s got six indoor pools that already have accessibility upgrades, but two of them are big enough to require a second lift — at about $3,500 each.

McCallister said he’s lucky the county has a penny sales tax that pays for upkeep of its parks and recreation centers. Otherwise he might have a hard time finding money.

“When mandates come up like this without appropriations, it’s a hardship for a lot of agencies,” McCallister said. “It seems like an overkill to me.”