The federal government on Friday extended its deadline for hotel and guesthouse owners to make pools accessible to people with disabilities. It was good news for Florida Keys lodging owners, many of them still scratching their heads over how to interpret the new rules.
The previous deadline for compliance was Monday, but it has been postponed until Jan. 31, according to documents published Friday by the U.S. Department of Justice, which administers the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act.
The extension was granted as a result of questions, confusion and concerns about the requirements of the pool accessibility rules that require lodging establishments to provide access and exit to pools with either a permanently installed lift that lowers disabled guests into a pool, or with a sloped entry into the pool or spa.
Pools with a perimeter of 300 linear feet or more are required to have two lifts, while smaller pools and spas are required to have at least one lift or sloped entry, according to the ADA rules.
The requirements and implementation had hotel and guesthouse owners nationwide scrambling to find money and lift manufacturers and installers in time to meet the compliance deadline. Backlogs for lift orders were making it impossible for some pool operators to comply, Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Key and Key West said in February, when the first March deadline was looming.
Weinhofer has been monitoring efforts by the American Hotel Lodging Association to gain clarification and support from the Department of Justice on the new rules.
Friday's announcement of the deadline extension, however, did not provide that clarification, said Key West hotelier Kate Miano, who owns The Gardens Hotel, a boutique hotel in a historic structure in Key West's historic district.
Miano said she repeatedly has asked representatives from the Justice Department to send an expert to Key West to answer questions, evaluate properties and clarify language in the new requirements that states that properties must provide access to pools and spas to the extent that it is "readily achievable." That term is defined in the ADA as "easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense."
Factors to be considered when determining whether compliance is "readily achievable" include the cost of a permanent pool lift, the resources of the site involved, number of employees, effect on expenses and resources and legitimate safety concerns, the DOJ document released Friday states.
The document acknowledges concerns from lodging establishments that they would have to close their pools entirely if they cannot comply with the accessibility requirements and thus face steep fines for noncompliance.
"Hotels and other public accommodations will not be required to close their existing pools if compliance with the applicable ADA Accessibility Standards is not easily accomplishable or able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense," the document states.
The document further states that the backlog of compliant permanent lifts "would demonstrate that it is not readily achievable to comply with the requirements until such time as a lift becomes available."
Miano ordered a permanent lift earlier this year, but had placed her order on hold until receiving clarification from the government. She and other local hoteliers also are concerned about safety risks that a permanent pool lift would pose to non-disabled guests who could stumble over it at night, or children who could get hurt playing on it at the pool.
She and others have told the government and the national lodging association that they support a portable lift that could be installed before the arrival of a disabled guest and left in place for the duration of their stay.
The document released Friday, which justifies the DOJ's extension, acknowledges the remaining questions and the fact that some owners were considering closing their pools to everyone until such time as they could install a fully compliant, permanent lift.
"These pool operators and owners will need time to undertake a fact-specific analysis about whether the installation of a fully compliant pool lift is 'readily achievable' and to implement their compliance plan," the document states.
The government also is considering comments it has received from people with disabilities and the organizations representing them, most of which opposed the deadline extension, claiming that lodging officials have had since 2010 to comply with the pool lift rules.
"After carefully considering all of these factors, including the unique burden that an additional postponement would impose on individuals with disabilities, the department has concluded that a further extension of the compliance date is warranted."
Until Jan. 31, hoteliers locally and nationally will be seeking further clarification of the requirements.