ANNAPOLIS – As high school seniors prepare to head to Ocean City to celebrate their graduation, many beach establishments are bracing for another tough season “June bug” season that mixes partying teen-agers with vacationing families.
For hotel managers, there is little choice but to let the June bugs in: State law says lodging establishments may not discriminate against any traveler who can pay for public accommodations, no matter their age.
It is based on centuries-old English common law, designed to provide weary travelers necessary protection from such hazards as thieves, bandits and pirates. But modern hotel managers call it ridiculously outdated and irrelevant today.
“It’s a silly situation,” said Allison Stine, general manager of the Princess Bayside Hotel in Ocean City. “A $289 hotel room in Ocean City hardly falls under the category of necessity. . . . But if a 10-year old is willing to pay for a room, the ACLU believes they should get it.”
A bill that would protect innkeepers from potentially rowdy, underage guests passed the House Friday. The bill would require that guests under age 18 have a parent or guardian rent the room and that they present a $500 deposit to cover any damages to their rooms.
Hotel managers had hoped for a more stringent Senate version of the bill, which passed in February on a 41-1 vote. In addition to requiring parental approval for a minor to rent a room, the Senate version would have required a $500 deposit from anyone under age 21.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, said he was once a “June bug,” but today’s “bugs” are a wilder breed, and college-aged individuals have become the greater nuisance. He has said that the bill loses its substance without restrictions on the 18 to 20 year-old age group.
“People 18 and under aren’t part of the problem,” Bromwell said. “The problem is people who are 21 and under. ”
Bromwell could not be reached Friday to say whether the Senate would support the House bill. “Under 18 is a Band-Aid,” he said last week. “Under 21 solves the problem.”
Most hotel operators agreed, saying that late-teens destroy more property and disturb more guests than high school teens.
“It is a fact, unfortunately, that most binge drinking occurs with college students,” said Peter Komar, general manager of the Holiday Inn Inner Harbor in Baltimore. He said his hotel has experienced problems with University of Delaware fraternities and students from Baltimore-area schools.
“It’s a time in our lives when we’re very free-spirited and we don’t question our mortality or morality,” Komar said.
But House opponents balked, saying the decision to require a deposit from 18- to 20-year-olds would be “completely discretionary with respect to innkeepers,” and could open the door to discrimination.
“What this bill says is, `If you look responsible, we’re not going to hit you with (the deposit). If you don’t look responsible, we are going to hit you with it’,” said Delegate William H. Cole IV, D-Baltimore. “That is discriminatory.”
Hotel owners and managers lobbied hard for the bill due to a growing number of incidents, primarily in Ocean City, where they say raucous underage partying has led to property destruction and angry guests demanding refunds after heavy disturbances.
“We need authority as managers and owners to protect our investments,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel Restaurant Association.
“It is a start, and it will give us some help to put something on the books,” she said of the House version of the bill.
The Eastern Shore branch of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil rights complaint two years ago against 22 Ocean City hotels, motels and inns, claiming they violated state law by discriminating against people under 21.
It asked the Maryland Human Relations Commission to investigate the hotels’ policies after complaints from parents who said several inns had rejected their attempts to rent rooms for their teen-age children. The parents gave consent and were willing to pay for the rooms, said Deborah A. Jeon, managing attorney for the ACLU’s Eastern Shore office.
Stine has plenty of stories of destruction by underage guests, like the time her cleaning staff could not open the door to a room because it was blocked by a pile of food, beer cans, liquor bottles and other trash left by a group of underage guests. Another time, staff found about 600 empty beer bottles in a room that had been rented by underage individuals.
Hotel managers are allowed to call police and evict guests once they receive complaints or discover evidence of a disturbance, but say they must address the problem up-front in order to prevent having to refund dissatisfied guests and replace destroyed property after the fact.
Guests who are disturbed will likely not return, Stine said.
“Once a family is awakened at 2 a.m. and (complains),” she said, “the damage is done.”