It’s been a summer of agony for hotels and restaurants in the Panhandle who’ve been hit hard by a decline in tourism caused by the Gulf oil spill, and they’re not alone. People and businesses in other parts of the state say their bottom lines are also suffering.
Here’s the problem: unlike their northern neighbors, these businesses could have a harder time getting reimbursed for the money they’ve lost.
He controls a $20 billion bank account, and so far Ken Feinberg is being frugal when it comes to writing checks.
“Let's see how many restaurants and lodging entities in Florida can demonstrate a loss,” he said.
The independent administrator of BP’s oil spill claims fund is demanding proof that people asking for money deserve it. Under his rules, doing that could be near impossible for Florida hotels and restaurants located nowhere near the spill.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Bill McCollum met with Feinberg in Tallahassee, demanding a better process.
“Other state officials in other states like Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama don't see eye to eye with Florida,” McCollum said. “Some of them appear to be resisting the idea that our tourism claims even be considered for payment. And so, I think he's getting a lot of flack, if you will.”
To the typical tourist, the fact the Panhandle is hundreds of miles and an ocean away from a place like Daytona Beach doesn’t really matter. The way they view it, the entire state has been awash in oil, and taking an old-fashioned vacation here is now out of the question.
McCollum says under the Federal Oil Pollution Act, any business anywhere affected by the drop-off in tourism ought to be able to make a claim and get paid. But even after Wednesday’s meeting, Feinberg continues to be skeptical.
In the end, consumer advocate Brad Ashwell predicts all those hotels and restaurants may have to go to court to get their money.
“It's looking like more and more people are going to be denied claims because they aren't close enough to the actual damage, when they were, in fact, affected, and we're going to see courts getting overloaded,” he said.
A costly and time-consuming hurdle, especially for businesses barely making ends meet now at the end of a disappointing season.
McCollum says Feinberg plans to revise the oil spill claims process within the next few weeks. However, he says there are no guarantees Florida businesses located hundreds of miles from the spill site will have it easier, and he isn’t ruling out a lawsuit.