TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Vacation rentals have rolled out the welcome mat in Florida again, but counties are imposing a variety of restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
After shuttering vacation-rental properties in late March, Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 18 lifted the ban for counties outside of South Florida, with a caveat: County officials had to submit proposed rental procedures to the state and get the go-ahead before bookings could resume.
As of Monday, state Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears has signed off on 53 counties’ plans, according to the agency’s website.
The policies are a patchwork of restrictions that can vary from one county to the next.
“It’s been very confusing. It’s also been very discouraging, because most of us have been just happy with our governor and our state and the fact that it’s very small-business friendly,” Gretchen Kornutik, owner of SunCoast Beach Vacations, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Monday.
It’s not just property owners and managers who’ve been confused, according to Kornutik, who owns and manages properties in Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties.
“The guests are confused, when they call,” due to variations in neighboring counties’ plans, she said, adding that some cities also have additional coronavirus-related ordinances affecting the vacation-rental industry.
In some counties, a maximum of 10 people are allowed to stay in each vacation-rental property, while nearby counties have no limit.
Some counties are mandating a 24-hour wait between bookings, while others are requiring “sufficient” or “adequate” time for cleaning and disinfecting.
And the people who are allowed to rent properties also fluctuates throughout Florida.
Some counties have banned all out-of-state visitors, at least for now.
Others are temporarily saying “no” to anyone from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana, states that DeSantis in executive orders identified as COVID-19 “hot spots,” as the deadly respiratory disease infected communities in Florida and the nation. Some counties are requiring guests from hot spots to book stays for the two-week self-quarantine period ordered by DeSantis.
Meanwhile, some counties are restricting visitors based on the infection rates in their home states. But even that metric is inconsistent, based on a News Service analysis of the plans.
At least one county --- Okeechobee --- established a maximum threshold of 300 cases per 100,000 residents, based on input from Beshears. Other counties banned visitors from areas with more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents or 700 cases per 100,000 residents.
On Monday, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Louisiana and Nebraska had rates of more than 700 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Iowa, Michigan, South Dakota, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Minnesota and Indiana had infection rates higher than 500 cases per 100,000 residents. Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico, Alabama, Tennessee, Utah, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Kansas, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, California, Nevada, Washington and Arkansas had more than 300 cases per 100,000 residents. Florida’s rate was 293 per 100,000 residents.
“Some people find it problematic because they’re operating in multiple counties and they have to continue to look at and monitor those numbers, because those numbers are always changing,” Denis Hanks, executive director of the Florida Vacation Rental Management Association, said in an interview on Monday. “We’ve seen some states come off the list and then go back on the list.”
Monitoring the case rates can be confusing for property managers and owners, Hanks said.
“I think everyone probably would like to see one single standard across the state, but it just didn’t happen that way,” he added.
Shut down in late March and April while hotels continued operating, vacation-rental property owners, management companies and cleaning businesses inundated DeSantis with pleas to allow them to resume operations before the Memorial Day weekend.
Once DeSantis announced that vacation rentals would be allowed to begin submitting reopening plans on May 18, Beshears advised counties to send their plans directly to him. The secretary quickly approved the proposals or made suggested tweaks to counties whose proposals he didn’t think were selective enough.
For example, Clay County’s May 18 submission to Beshears said vacation rentals would be open to “anyone who is seeking overnight accommodations."
But the Northeast Florida county amended its plan, after the secretary sent local officials an email instructing them to “please add something to limit reservations from hot spots in the country.”
Clay County’s revised plan, submitted on May 19, said “vacation rentals and stays will be allowed from all U.S. states with a COVID-19 case rate less than 800 cases/100K residents as of May 19.”
The reason for the counties’ disparities in threshold case rates is unclear.
On May 19, Beshears told Wakulla County Communications and Public Service Director Jessica Welch to add language to the Northwest Florida county’s plan.
“Resubmit with this: ‘Vacation rentals reservations and stays will be allowed from U.S. states with a COVID-19 case rate less than 500 cases/100K residents as of May 14,’ ” Beshears wrote, adding a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 case-tracking website. Welch complied, and Beshears approved Wakulla’s plan.
The following day, Beshears told Okeechobee County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs to add language to his county’s plan to restrict rentals “to guests from all U.S. states with a COVID-19 case rate less than 300 cases/100,000 residents as of May 14.” Burroughs followed the suggestion and resubmitted the plan, which Beshears approved.
Beshears also advised Gilchrist County Administrator Bobby Crosby to adjust the North Florida county’s proposal.
“Put a time limit on the in state rentals only. You don’t want to limit yourself to that indefinitely,” Beshears wrote on May 18.
A revised plan, submitted the following day, restricted vacation rentals to Florida residents “until end of Phase 1,” referring to DeSantis’ plan to revive Florida’s anemic economy. The governor last week announced the state was moving into the second stage of what his three-phase reopening effort.
All of the counties’ plans include intensive cleaning and disinfecting protocols that follow CDC guidelines.
Kornutik said the additional sanitation measures have doubled her cleaning costs. Guests, property owners and her management company are splitting the extra charges “so that everybody’s taking a hit equally,” she said.
On the bright side, Kornutik said she’s been “crazy busy” since reopening last month.
“We are at 98 percent occupancy, and my phone will not stop ringing. Which is a beautiful thing,” she said.
About 80 percent of her guests are Floridians, an uptick of the average 50 percent share of in-state rentals during summer, according to Kornutik.
Nearly all of the counties are reviewing their plans every two weeks, which adds to the vacation-rental industry’s anxiety.
“It is madness and it’s changing every day,” Kornutik said.