By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Swimming pool operators around the region are waiting to see whether their facilities comply with new federal regulations that go into effect March 15.
The new rules involve an interpretation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and whether a permanently affixed lift must be in place at each publicly accessible body of water, which includes all indoor and outdoor swimming pools and spas.
For years, many hotels and motels have had a single portable lift available for any patrons with physical disabilities. The lift could be moved as needed between a swimming pool and hot tub, then it could be stored out of the way when not needed.
Under the new rules, a permanently affixed lift must be in place at every swimming pool and hot tub. At least that's the interpretation issued in January by the U.S. Department of Justice, which was asked to render an opinion at the request of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
Since then, the AHLA sent letters to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder seeking restoration of a more "common sense interpretation" of the ADA rules. The association and its membership are is still waiting for a response.
The AHLA, and many of its member hotels, would rather not see permanently affixed lifts required. The AHLA argues that this hard-line interpretation not only will cost the lodging industry millions of dollars in added expenses, but it will also create safety and liability concerns at many hotels.
Mariann Tsilis Barnard, director of operations at the Town and Country Inn and Suites in Quincy, said the Department of Justice interpretation created confusion among hotel operators because many now aren't sure whether they should install permanent lifts in the event the ADA rules are relaxed.
"That's where the controversy has been coming in for the hotels," she said. "The question is whether they need a separate lift for each body of water. We're all waiting to find out what they (the Department of Justice) would accept."
Barnard said many of Quincy's hotel operators had a meeting last week to talk about the situation, and some aren't sure how to proceed. Some are reluctant to go ahead and install permanent lifts if there is a chance the ADA interpretation might be changed before March 15. There is a reluctance, she noted, because each lift costs about $4,900 or more.
"It's important to do what's right, but we're not sure what we're supposed to do, which is unfortunate," she said.
Barnard said it would be "more convenient" for many hotels to keep using portable lifts because they take up less space and can be stored out of the way when not in use. She said permanent lifts would take up more space and pose a possible trip hazard.
"When you put two pieces of fixed equipment in (at a pool and hot tub), there may not even be a place to sit on the deck," she said.
Deb Carstens, general manager of the Fairfield Inn of Quincy, said she also has concerns about installing two permanent lifts.
"I'm concerned about the safety of our other guests and our small guests -- the children that come and stay with us," Carstens said. "This is going to be a jumping tool (if children start playing on it). It will sit out there in the middle of the pool room, and we hope it won't be a trip hazard."
"We want to accommodate our guest with disabilities without a doubt, but we feel like we can do that with a portable lift. Unfortunately, that's not the ruling at this point."
Carstens said Fairfield's corporate office will be handling the purchase of any additional equipment needed at the chain's facilities around the country.
"They are fully aware of what it will take to be fully compliant with the ADA," she said. However, Carstens said many people in the hotel industry have a "sneaking suspicion" the ADA rule interpretation could change before March 15, "and then you've got all these people who have gone out and spent all this money."
The ADA rules apply to all pool operators -- not just hotels.
Sheridan Swim Club in Quincy is also taking steps to be in compliance. Carol Rakers, president of the club's board of directors, said the board already has ordered a permanent lift to be installed at the club's indoor pool. She said the lift cost about $6,000, not including installation expenses. She hopes it will be ready by March 15.
However, Rakers said it's still not clear whether the club will have to install a permanent lift at all of its outdoor pools.
"I'm trying to get a little clarity on that," she said.
Rakers said it was her understanding initially that the club needed a permanent lift for the indoor pool and could use a portable lift for the outdoor pools, but that might not be the case.
"We may have to get a permanent lift for each pool, which would mean we would need to have four of them outside," she said.
Rakers said the board will do whatever it takes to get the facility in compliance.
"We want to continue to serve everybody and be accessible," she said. "We'll do whatever we have to do."
Ed Seger, interim executive director of the Quincy Park District, said Indian Mounds Pool already complies with ADA requirements because a permanent lift is installed throughout the swimming season. But Wavering Aquatic Center does not have a lift.
"We'll be looking at adding one at Wavering," Seger said.
The March 15 deadline isn't an immediate concern because the district's pools won't open until the Memorial Day weekend.
Seger said the park district hired a firm last year to conduct an ADA compliance survey of all district-owned facilities to determine how they match up against ADA rules. As a result of that survey, he said, the district developed an eight-year plan for making changes to all facilities so they are eventually in full compliance.
"We've looked at our facilities very thoroughly, and we have a checklist and we're working through those," he said. "We also have a transition plan."
The Quincy Family YMCA and the swimming pool at Quincy University's Health and Fitness Center both have permanent lifts installed, so those facilities are already in compliance with ADA standards.