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Panhandle Reopens Short-Term Rentals

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Escambia County’s blueprint to reopen short-term vacation rentals — with precautions for COVID-19 —has the blessing of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Short-term vacation rentals in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and four other Panhandle counties were allowed to reopen Tuesday with some restrictions, after weeks of being shut down as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. The reversal in the governor’s “Full Phase-One” of reopening Florida comes as the busy tourist season cranks up.

“[Escambia] County put forward that plan, the state approved it; so that’s what’s going to be happening at this particular time. But these are reasons why we continue to stay looking at their numbers,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.

Speaking Wednesday on Facebook, Robinson said the city would be a “team player” and follow what was approved for Escambia County for such rentals.

“How do we work together, and how do we create that work?” Robinson said. “We’re going to work with our counterparts in Escambia County and we’ve told them we would have one ordinance countywide and we would comply with that.”

With phase one nearing completion, can phase two be far away? The mayor says look for that on or around June 1.

“If we don’t have any [coronavirus] setbacks, I think you’re going to see us moving into a phase two here probably that last weekend of May [or] first of June,” said the mayor. “We’ll successfully obey to incorporate most of phase one, if not all of it, by the end of the month. And I think hopefully we’ll be ready to go phase two by June 1.”

“We were one of several organizations contacted by the county administrator; we’re forwarding information [and] talking with our peers in other counties trying to find a unified message,” said Darien Schaefer, Visit Pensacola’s new President and CEO.

He adds that, in developing the plan, they received little if any direction from the state. But that in turn enabled them to customize plans county-by-county, with some common threads, such as cleaning protocols.

“We share kind of a national standard through the Vacation Rental Management Association (VRMA) that would apply across the entire nation,” said Schaefer. “And that would allow vacation rental management companies to look at those standards and apply it to their cleaning procedures as needed.”

Some other restrictions in the plan deal with reservations from residents of states with COVID-19 rates at less than 700 cases per 100,000 population as of May 15.

“That allows all of our neighboring states — our drive-to markets — to be able to come to Pensacola,” said Schaefer. “However, that excludes New York and some of the northern/East Coast states that have much higher incidents. And right now, it still currently excludes Louisiana.”

The Pelican State just misses out, with a current rate of about 740 coronavirus cases per 100,000. Out-of-country visitors are also barred for now, including those from Mexico and snowbird-rich Canada. Health and safety, says Schaefer, top their agenda.

“We want to make sure everybody feels comfortable when they’re coming to Pensacola,” Schaefer said. “So whether it’s any of our traditional lodging — hotels and motels, or short-term vacation rentals — that they understand that our priority is providing a safe and clean environment for them.”

Schaefer, who came aboard Visit Pensacola about a month ago, says the future of the 2020 summer season hinges in large part on the ability to hold scheduled events.

“It’s our hope by July that the restrictions as far as people together in different group sizes will be eased a bit so that some of our July events will be able to go as scheduled,” said Schaefer. “That’s our hope that we keep moving forward in a positive fashion, we don’t take a step backwards. Because meetings and conferences – a big part of business travel – and that’s something that really isn’t an option at this point.”

There’s hope that lodging can rebound post-coronavirus and renew growth later this summer, but Visit Pensacola’s Darien Schaefer cautions the pandemic may cause things to rebound slower than desired.

“It’s going to be a while for some of the things that have traditionally been held to return to normal; we may be a year for some of those items,” said Schaefer. “Whether you talk to the [Pensacola] Bay Center, or some of our other event venues, that [it’s] six months to a year to rebook some of those concerts and events.”

State Rep. Alex Andrade, who represents parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, says reopening vacation rentals will allow the area to recover faster because the region depends on tourism to “survive the rest of the year.”

More information – including updates on what’s going on where – can be found at visitpensacola.com.