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Two bed bugs walked into a bar. Is that why Pelican Pub patrons got a rash?

It’s possible, experts say. The insects don’t always hang out on soft surfaces. But other causes are being looked at too.
This 2008 photo from the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology shows a female bed bug, right, and her offspring. Pinellas County health officials investigating a rash outbreak among patrons of the Pelican Pub found two bed bugs, one live and one dead, in the St. Petersburg bar. The insects, along with cleaning solutions used by the bar, are being investigated as possible causes of the rash. [Associated Press / Virginia Tech Department of Entomology]
Published Oct. 31
Updated Oct. 31

It’s not common for bed bugs to be found in a bar, but it’s possible.

Health investigators were unsure if the insects were the culprits behind a mysterious skin rash contracted by dozens of people after they visited the Pelican Pub in downtown St. Petersburg.

They found one live bed bug and one dead one when they followed up Tuesday after a viral Facebook post that prompted some 60 people to say they developed a rash after visiting the bar, which sits next to the Jannus Live concert venue. Pelican Pub closed for two days during the investigation, but announced it would reopen Halloween night.

RELATED: News of a nasty rash goes viral. Officials investigate the Pelican Pub.

Patrons described the rash as itchy, blotchy, painful, and lasting for weeks — sometimes months. Some say they still have scars. Health officials also noted that bar employees wiped down benches inside the pub with a sanitizer that “exceeded the maximum concentration allowed.” It’s unknown if those levels could have caused chemical skin reactions.

The health department usually finds bed bugs in luggage and upholstery, said spokeswoman Maggie Hall. A search of health complaints and inspection reports in Pinellas County shows no history of investigations into a bar or restaurant with bed bugs.

“According to our environmental health staff, it’s more about hiding places for bed bugs than about the surface,” Hall said. “The bench itself was actually some sort of composite surface and not wood. Bed bugs look for places to hide and there seemed to be an area under the bench where they found a suitable spot.”

Nearly all the patrons who complained were sitting in the same area of the pub — on a set of benches in a corner.

RELATED: Tampa woman came back from vacation with a maggot in her groin

“Bed bugs won’t burrow into the wood like termites, but they’ll hide in the cracks and crevices,” said Brittany Campbell, an entomologist with the National Pest Management Association. Campbell researched bed bug activity while completing her masters degree and doctorate.

“They actually like really rough surfaces. So rough wood, especially if it’s composite, would be preferable," she said. "Studies show they prefer to hang out on unfinished wood instead of finished.”

Bed bugs feed on humans, and only require one “meal" every week or so. That’s why they tend to be found in mattresses or couches, where people sit or recline for long periods. They’re almost always found indoors.

“They are attracted to humans because they live almost exclusively on human blood,” Campbell said. “They can register our breath and our body heat. So that’s why when you’re sleeping and producing carbon dioxide, they’re attracted to you.”

Campbell said she “wasn’t surprised” to hear that bed bugs had turned up in a bar.

“They’ve been found in movie theaters, which makes sense since it’s dark and people sit for a long time. They’ve been in a Victoria’s Secret store, in libraries, just about anywhere,” she said. “They’re very good at hiding.”

It’s impossible to know where the Pelican Pub bed bugs came from, but Campbell said it’s likely someone already living with an infestation somewhere else unwittingly carried them into the bar. And all it takes to start an infestation is one pregnant bed bug. They are notorious for being hard to control, so Campbell recommends hiring a commercial pest control company to get rid of them.

“They are excellent hitchhikers,” she said. “Occasionally they get into people’s shoes, and they don’t even know it. So if someone was sitting on that bench and they were hungry, the bugs found a meal and hide thereafter.”

The owners of the pub said this week they hired a pest control company to do an inspection, and removed the benches where the affected patrons said they sat. The owners said the pub planned to reopen Thursday night with some bench-themed drink specials and celebrations.

“Our teams have been working around the clock to get the pub back up and running and we’re grateful to everyone’s hard work and patience,” pub owner Sean Knight said in a statement. “We’re ready to get back to what we do best, which is throwing great parties and having fun.”

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