|By Scott Powers and Sara K. Clarke, The
Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 30, 2009 --Lucio Serradas' first sign of trouble came when he and his family awoke during their Christmas vacation last year to discover smears of fresh blood, the size of small coins, on the sheets at their Daytona Beach motel.
He suspected it was from bedbugs -- a scourge once nearly eradicated that has re-emerged nationally in the past decade. After Serradas, his wife and their two children broke out in itchy rashes back home in Attleboro, Mass., he complained to Florida regulators. "I beg you," he wrote, "to please do something about this."
What Serradas didn't know is that Florida regulators were operating under a policy that left them virtually powerless when it came to taking action against hotels with bedbug infestations.
Now, after an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel, the state is changing its bedbug-inspection procedures.
Under the old policy, hotel inspectors at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Hotels and Restaurants were not allowed to enter a room alleged to be infested, for fear of spreading the pests. At the same time, state law says inspectors need to observe a violation before they can cite a hotel for any violation.
Entomologist Susan Jones of Ohio State University, a bedbug expert, called that policy "pure insanity."
Division of Hotels and Restaurants Director Bill Veach, who previously told the Sentinel bedbugs were regrettable but not serious, last week ordered his inspectors to enter rooms with suspected bedbugs after donning protective shoe covers, hairnets and gloves.
The same inspectors who once were told to "get out" immediately if they saw bedbugs will now ask hotel staff to remove pillows, mattress pads and bedding so they can inspect everything from the linens to the headboards to find the spots where bedbugs hide. If they find evidence of bedbugs, they will check rooms on either side -- and above -- the infested guest room. The search will go on until they stop finding bedbugs.
Hotels that are found to have bedbugs will receive a formal warning, and the affected rooms will be off-limits for rentals until inspectors can verify the problem has been resolved. The new policy also instructs inspectors to go home, take their clothes to the washer immediately, and shower -- all on work time.
"The Division of Hotels and Restaurants recognizes the growing prevalence of bedbugs and the need to re-evaluate current policies and procedures when inspecting lodging establishments and responding to bedbug complaints," Veach told the Sentinel.
The Sentinel inquired about bedbugs this summer as part of an analysis of how Florida regulates hotels and motels and deals with problem hoteliers, in a state that draws 84.2 million visitors and an estimated $65.2 billion in visitors' money each year.
An analysis of more than 7,000 inspections finds that Central Florida's hotels and motels have little to fear from the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants, which largely relies on the honor system to get hoteliers to fix problems ranging from mold to falsified rates.
In the past three years, the Division of Business and Professional Regulation received 94 bedbug complaints in Central Florida, an eight-county area that includes 908 licensed hotels and motels, offering 138,518 rooms in Brevard, Indian River, Lake, Orange, Osceola, St.Lucie, Seminole and Volusia counties.
But even though regulators respond to every complaint -- in addition to performing routine inspections at all hotels and motels twice a year -- Department of Business and Professional Regulation spokeswoman Jenn Meale said the division was not aware of even one citation for bedbugs in Central Florida during that period.
When inspectors received a complaint about bedbugs, they simply advised the hotel to fix the problem-- but never followed up because they had no formal authority under the old policy.
Regulators said the bedbug problem didn't merit more attention because it did not present a public-health issue.
"Please don't think that I'm in any means diminishing the significance here; we realize that these bites can be painful and all that," Veach told the Sentinel earlier this summer. "But strictly from a technical sanitation and safety perspective, I think you're right when you use the term: 'It's a nuisance.'"
The new policy was quickly drawn up after the department consulted with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various other agencies across the country.
'Provide proof' For travelers who pick up bedbugs from Florida hotels and take them home as a souvenir, the problem can be much more than a nuisance.
Dongtao Wang, an engineer from Columbus, Ohio, complained that he and his family encountered bedbugs at the Howard Johnson Inn Kissimmee Heritage last New Year's Eve. Soon after they got home, bedbugs emerged in their house, too. It took two months of pest-control treatments to get rid of them, he said.
"Starting from the fourth day or so, I started having bites on my body. And after a couple days my wife and daughter also got bites; they were more serious. We realized we may have brought back bedbugs," Wang said. "At first I contacted the hotel and they said, no, they don't have them. They sent someone to inspect, and they didn't see anything. Also, I filed a complaint. Then I received a call saying they didn't find any bedbugs in that hotel ... they wanted me to provide proof."
Doug Barrow, general manager for Triangle Management, which manages that Howard Johnson as well as several other motels and hotels, said he could not remember Wang's complaint specifically. He said in his career he has seen many bedbug claims but only encountered one confirmed bedbug incident, though he could not recall the specifics.
Barrow said his company, indeed any responsible hotelier, takes bedbug complaints seriously, always calling in its pest-control service to inspect complaints, because an unchecked bedbug problem can be costly.
Adam Jones, vice president of Massey Services, said his pest-control company frequently works with hotels and motels to deal with bedbugs and other insects. But he said he has never been contacted by a panicked hotelier because an inspector told him there was an insect problem. He said restaurants handle pest matters dramatically different.
"If a restaurant inspector found a roach problem, my customer would be on the phone with me within 10-15 seconds," Jones said. "Jiminy-quick."
Left unsatisfied As for Serradas, he said the Days Inn Daytona Speedway gave him a refund.
A state motel inspector asked the hotel to have the bedbug complaint checked out by a pest-control company. Then he filed a report declaring that Serradas' complaint was "not observed" and that the inspection result was "satisfactory." The department closed the case.
Serradas was left unsatisfied.
"Putting in a complaint, not putting in a complaint," he said, "the results are the same."
Scott Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5441. Sara K. Clarke can be reached at skclarke @orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5664.
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