When Lauren Bedor came to visit friends in St. Petersburg, she didn’t anticipate going home with a nasty skin rash.
Bedor, 31, spent a night out with friends in downtown in June. They went out to dinner and ended up at the Pelican Pub, next to the Jannus Live concert venue.
“I had a great time. I went home and had no problems," Bedor said. "A couple of days later, these faint bumps showed up and progressively got worse.”
Fearing the spreading rash was contagious, she went to an urgent care facility when she returned home to Melbourne, on the east coast of Florida.
“The doctor thought maybe I brushed up against something like a plant,” she said. “It was so itchy. It took weeks to go away, even with a steroid cream.”
Months later, her friend in St. Petersburg shared a viral Facebook post with her, which showed another woman, Rachael Renn, experiencing the same thing. Renn said in the Sunday post that she contracted a rash after a night at the Pelican Pub.
More than 60 people have found the post and connected over Facebook Messenger to share similar stories of the mysterious skin condition.
“My jaw dropped,” Bedor said.
Now the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is investigating the pub, owned and operated by Jannus Live, looking for what could have led to the rashes, said spokeswoman Maggie Hall. In addition, the pub owners said Tuesday they are temporarily closing the establishment to deal with the problem.
Hall said the department became aware of the Facebook reports and sent an epidemiologist and health inspectors to the pub Tuesday to “check things out.” Inspectors found two bed bugs on a bench — one live and one dead — and a live palmetto bug on the floor, according to a news release.
In addition, health officials said in the release that chlorine levels in the bar sanitizer sink “were high." They also noted that levels of quaternary ammonium, a family of disinfectants used in many household products, "was a little bit low.”
The health department first investigated a complaint about the rashes at the pub on Sept. 1, but investigators found no cause for concern, Hall said. However, they added a note that the Pelican Pub’s staff used a bleach and water solution to wipe down the wood benches inside the bar, according to a report.
The owners of the bar also hired a pest control company to do a full inspection Tuesday, they said in a statement.
“There are two issues and we are voluntarily closing the bar down to the public until those matters are resolved,” Sean Knight, an owner of the pub, said in the statement. “We will be replacing the entire bench. The safety of our patrons is our number one priority."
Knight said this was the first and only complaint from a customer in the five years since the bench was installed.
Caylee Biddison said she and her friends always try to sit on the wood benches in the corner of the bar when they visit Pelican Pub. Biddison broke out in red hives three times over the course of four months before she made the connection that the rash was coming from the pub.
She saw an urgent care doctor after the bumps didn’t go away for a few days the first time. Then she saw a dermatologist who thought she was having an allergic reaction or the hives were related to stress or heat.
The bumps always showed up on the back of her legs and arms.
“I changed my diet because of this. I stopped drinking beer, eating nuts, chocolate, tomatoes, eggs, because I thought it could be allergy,” said Biddison, who lives in downtown St. Petersburg and works in marketing.
“I missed about two weeks of work because I was so uncomfortable all the time," she said. "I started coming home to shower on my lunch breaks. I washed my sheets every other day. I inspected them every night with a flashlight looking for bed bugs.”
Biddison said she felt relieved when she saw the Facebook post about others with the rash.
“We still don’t know what it is, but at least I know there are more people,” she said. “It’s so uncomfortable. The only relief I got was from ice baths. I honestly would rather get the flu than this again. It’s very aggravating.”