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Swimmers lose access to hotel pool

January 09, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A group of area residents doesn't like the Plaza Hotel's new pool policy: For guests only.

Dozens of people from the community, many of them senior citizens, have used the pool in recent years as paying members of an "adult health club" at the hotel.

But the arrangement ended last month because it didn't meet a state health code that requires, among other things, lifeguards for public pools.

The Washington County Health Department first told the Halfway hotel in 2001 it couldn't offer public pool access without meeting certain regulations, department spokesman Rod MacRae said.

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The hotel was supposed to stop, but the health department learned this past November the program was still going on, MacRae said.

Erma Renner, the hotel's general manager, said she disbanded the club in the middle of December.

Some swimmers, such as Dr. Richard Young, are upset and either don't want to go elsewhere or say they can't.

Young, 87, who lives north of Hagerstown, questioned why lifeguards are needed to protect community swimmers, but not hotel guests, calling it "a question of semantics."

He said he paid $35 a month to swim at the hotel. Swimming was helpful exercise after he tore cartilage in his knee two years ago, he said.

Jill Keefer of Halfway said she swam at the Plaza Hotel on and off for about 14 years. It was a good place for therapy for arthritis or a knee replacement, she said, but Keefer was there for recreation.

Young, Keefer and nine others signed a protest letter to the editor of The Herald-Mail blasting the health department.

"Hydrotherapy is a great asset for body building and outweighs the 'brain therapy' being exerted by our local health officials," the letter says. "If change is not made, these 200+ people can rot and die peacefully at home from poor health, thanks to our health department."

MacRae said it was up to hotel management to decide how to follow the law.

"We did not close the pool," he said.

Under state law, hotel pools are generally "semipublic," said Pamela Engle, chief of the Division of Community Services within the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.

A semipublic pool has lesser requirements than a public, or "recreational," pool, which must have a lifeguard on duty and meet more stringent water-quality standards.

MacRae said that by charging the public a fee to swim there, the Plaza Hotel had in effect operated a recreational pool without telling the health department.

Renner said she tried to phase out the club in November by cutting off new membership and letting current members finish the time for which they paid. But when some club members complained further, Renner stopped the program entirely in December, she said.

The Clarion Hotel & Conference Center in Hagerstown had a similar membership system for community use of its pool.

Co-owner Lata Milner said she and her husband ended the program when they bought the hotel last year. Some people weren't happy, but it created safety, security and liability concerns, she said.

"There's plenty of public pools around," she said.

Keefer said community swimmers haven't given up on using the Plaza Hotel pool again and hope the state representatives they've contacted can help change the law.

Or maybe, she said, some swimmers can get lifeguard certification, qualifying them to watch over the group.

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