Kenneth Feinberg came to the right decision this week even if it took him too long to get there.
The administrator of the $20 billion BP oil spill claims fund finally agreed to consider compensation claims for hotels, restaurants and other tourist-driven businesses in places where no oil hit the shoreline but the fears of spoiled beaches triggered a decline in income. Ever since oil from BP's ruptured Deepwater Horizon rig started gushing into the gulf in April, it has been apparent that Florida's west coast businesses were losing tourists, conventioneers and customers. People did not want to risk traveling to a beach that could be oil-free one day and contaminated the next — and many tourists are not that familiar with Florida's geography. Feinberg's announcement means Tampa Bay area losses, or at least a portion of them, will be compensated.
Good. Now show us the money.
To put it bluntly, Feinberg has been teasing businesses like the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach since he took over the compensation fund. The TradeWinds had its $1.15 million claim for lost profits rejected by BP's adjuster because the hotel complex wasn't located in an area where oil had come ashore. But from the start, Feinberg promised a more generous approach. He told a roundtable of business owners in Pensacola Beach in July that every business and worker affected, whether they were in proximity to the oil or not, should apply. "Eligible claims are not limited to those motels and restaurants that are impacted by physical degradation of the beach," Feinberg said. "If they've been adversely impacted by the tourism downswing as a result of the leak, by all means, you are not ineligible."
Since then, Feinberg offered mixed signals and inordinate delay. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said thousands of claims in Florida were rejected or delayed under BP's proximity rule that ruled out claims in places with no oil. Everyone was waiting for what Feinberg would do.
Last month, Feinberg sent a message that he was "skeptical" of claims from areas outside the spill but was still considering what if any proximity rule to adopt. Meanwhile, time passed and gulf area businesses trying to hold on until a claim check arrived were getting desperate. Pleas were made to Feinberg to hurry. Gov. Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum applied pressure.
Finally, Feinberg definitively announced Monday he was pushing aside the old proximity, saying it "should not be applied." He promised to "examine each claim and see if the claimant can document that damage." That should help local businesses that can truly demonstrate a loss.
Now, let's hop to it. Checks need to be cut.