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TIGHTEN UP REGULATION OF HOTELS

The Orlando Sentinel's questions about dirty hotels and inadequate hotel inspections resulted in improved bedbug searches even before the newspaper's stories were printed. That's just one indication that the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants has been too nonchalant about hotel cleanliness and safety.

The newspaper recently found plenty of evidence of inadequate performance by the division. One example: a nonsensical agency rule that prevented inspectors from entering a hotel room if someone had reported it had bedbugs, supposedly because the bugs might hitch a ride on inspectors' clothes. Yet state law says inspectors can't cite a hotel for a violation unless they personally observe the violation. Little wonder, then, that hotels seldom were cited for bedbug infestations. Furthermore, the agency director shrugged off bedbugs as a mere "nuisance," not a public health issue, according to the newspaper, despite numerous reports of hotel visitors bitten by the blood-sucking insects while they slept, leaving them with welts and bloody sheets.

The reporters' questions and a quick check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention apparently convinced the agency its policy on bedbugs was buggy. Henceforth, the agency said, inspectors will wear protective clothing and thoroughly search a room reported to be infested with bedbugs. If they find the bugs, they must search all adjoining rooms. Inspectors will go home afterward to wash their clothes.

The newspaper found it was rare for hotels to be fined or closed, no matter how significant the complaints, which ranged from blood-stained sheets to rat feces to safety violations. At a Kissimmee hotel visited by inspectors seven times in 17 months, 104 violations were recorded - 51 of them labeled "critical" - yet the hotel was not fined. Tourists complained to the state about "disgusting" conditions at a rundown motel in Central Florida, and the state eventually fined the owner a little over $1,000. But it was county building inspectors who found the electricity off at the motel and shut it down.

Agency officials say they seldom fine or close hotels because they prefer to cooperate with hotel managers to correct violations. But that approach can encourage inspectors to ignore violations and make hotel managers unconcerned about meeting standards, knowing that the only penalty will be marks on an inspection sheet.

Florida's economy heavily depends on tourism, so it is incumbent upon the Division of Hotels and Restaurants to make sure hotels are as safe and sanitary as possible. What the traveling public wants is a regulator, not a hand-holder.

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