Local governments worked overtime last weekend to submit their safety plans for short-term rentals in hopes of restarting the tourism industry in the Panhandle. And they're starting to get approvals back today.
The scramble started Friday afternoon when Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out his “full phase one” reopening plan for the state, which includes resuming short-term rentals on a case-by-case basis.
Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council held a special meeting Monday morning to endorse the county’s safety plan, which was submitted to County Administrator John Hofstad by 6 a.m. Saturday. The plans were submitted to Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and approved by Tuesday morning.
“We burned the midnight oil Friday night,” said TDC Chairman Ken Wampler.
There’s a big push to open short-term rentals before the peak season as they comprise nearly 80% of rental units in Okaloosa County. The governor banned short-term rentals in mid-March to detract tourists and prevent the spread of coronavirus. On Friday, he said he did not ban hotel and resort lodging because those rooms were needed for health-care workers and the National Guard.
State Rep. Mel Ponder said the governor will review and approve plans to make sure they restrict visitors from COVID-19 hot spots.
“It has to have exclusions of hot spots, our county achieved that,” he said at the TDC meeting. “It’s critical that this section of industry gets open. I’m hoping it will be (approved) in the first part of this week — that’s how it was relayed back to me.”
Similarly, Escambia, Santa Rosa and Walton counties all submitted their safety plans by Friday evening. They all address heightened cleaning protocols, as well as restricting tourists from hot-spot areas. Okaloosa identifies high-risk areas as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana. Santa Rosa County’s and Escambia County’s plans are more restrictive, only allowing reservations from U.S. states with COVID-19 rates at fewer than 700 cases per 100,000 residents, which adds Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.
Okaloosa Commissioner Nathan Boyles said he’s received some feedback about excluding Louisiana since a large part of the drive-in market is from that state.
“In Louisiana, many places weren’t more impacted than we were,” he said. “We’ll be encouraging tightening those restrictions up where they are necessary.”
As the new safety plans get approved, and reviewed on a regular basis, it will be up to property managers to maintain.
With 1,200 properties across the five Panhandle counties, Scott Seay, CEO of Southern Vacation Rentals, said he offered assistance with the safety plans that were submitted in the last few days.
“We all live here, and we also don’t want to put anyone’s life in danger,” he said. “We’re preparing our properties as if our kids were staying there.”
Trevor Ladner, owner of White Sand Vacation Rentals said he’s thrilled to see any movement on short-term rentals. With an inventory of mostly single-family homes, he hasn’t had a reservation since the first week of March.
New cleaning measures have already been implemented in anticipation of reopening, and Ladner said he won’t be surprised to see guests do their own wipe downs for peace of mind. But he expressed some concern about restricting visitors from hot spots.
“I totally understand it,” he said. “But being someone who has to enforce (the rule) … that is uncomfortable.”
Another uncomfortable issue is the cancellation policies during a pandemic. Dallas, Texas resident Craig Murray said he wished the governor’s plan included consumer protections.
“It feels like we’re at the bottom (of priorities),” he said.
Murray had a family vacation planned for May 10 to May 17 in Walton County when the rental agency canceled his stay and offered him a voucher in lieu of his $964.99 deposit. But he says the voucher doesn’t ensure he will get the same stay for the same price and could cost him more in the long run.
He’s disputed the charge with his credit card company and filed a complaint with the Florida Attorney General’s office, which has sent a letter to the agency.
For cancellations, Ladner said he’s tried to reschedule people as “a first line of defense,” but ultimately gave refunds for many guests.
“The truth is, it’s no one’s fault,” he said.
Murray won’t be the only one missing a Florida vacation. With the pandemic and economic collapse, the summer season will be lighter, said Seay.
“We may see people opting for a long weekend instead of an extended stay,” he said. “I definitely don’t see the season being anything like the past.”