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No, this is not ‘fake news.’ Image via Patti Blake/Panama City News Herald.

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Panhandle lawmakers pitch localized vacation rental reopening

Vacation rentals don’t need a one-size-fits-all approach, they say.

Representatives from the Panhandle banded together in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis to ask that he allow vacation rentals to fully open in the region amid the fight against COVID-19.

In March, the Governor suspended short-term vacation rentals, offered through apps like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway, tying those rentals to out-of-state COVID-19 spreaders. But those rentals are a significant portion of the Panhandle’s tourist economy.

Reps. Alex Andrade, Brad Drake, Mike Hill, Mel Ponder, Jason Shoaf, Jay Trumbull and Jayer Williamson, all Republicans, penned the letter Thursday night asking DeSantis to take a regional approach to the vacation rental ban.

“From our vacation rentals, to our eco-friendly camping, fishing, and hiking, in our area many of us rely on tourism and all the ancillary businesses that brings to make a living,” they wrote. “From the hardware store, flower shop and real estate agent on main street to the bait shop or cleaning crew that maintains the vacation rentals, we need tourism so our families can thrive.”

DeSantis has called his reopening plan a data-driven and measured approach. The plan’s name even tries to get that point across: “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step.”

Vacation rental owners have questioned whether the data-driven approach ended when it came to the popular getaway option.

“Our hotels, motels, inns, and resorts are reopening while vacation rentals are singled out,” the Panhandle delegation wrote. “They employ and directly impact so many in this region, yet will be unable to handle a second consecutive month with zero income. If it is not allowed to return soon, operating under strict social distancing and CDC guidelines, we fear that many of our constituents will suffer even more devastating losses than they already have.”

Ahead of Phase One of the reopening, DeSantis extended the ban indefinitely. His Re-Open Florida Task Force’s final report called for vacation rentals to open to Florida residents during Phase Two and to all guests in Phase Three.

The Governor has not announced the details for either of those phases and has deviated from the task force on some suggestions, including restaurant capacity and gyms.

DeSantis has applied the stay-at-home order, retroactively dubbed Phase Zero, for different periods of time across the state. On Friday, he announced Palm Beach County would enter Phase One on Monday, leaving Broward and Miami-Dade counties as the final two on lockdown.

Vacation rentals don’t need a one-size-fits-all restriction either, the Panhandle delegation suggested.

As of Friday, 1,193 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the region and 125 have been hospitalized. At least 36 Floridians have died, but that doesn’t account for snowbirds and others deemed non-residents.

Most cases in the Panhandle have been concentrated in Pensacola, but elsewhere along the coast, cases have remained minimal. In May, five people have tested positive in Santa Rosa County, as have seven in Okaloosa County, 12 in Walton County and three in Bay County. Only one person has tested positive in Gulf County, and none this month.

“The panhandle is resilient. We’ve overcome significant disasters in the past decade: the BP Oil Spill, Hurricane Michael, the NAS Pensacola Shooting and forest fires,” the Representatives wrote. “We cannot allow an invisible threat and government intervention to be the disaster that brings it to its knees.”

Last week, Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz weighed-in on the vacation rental ban during a press conference alongside the Governor.

“In Northwest Florida, we don’t have a 500-key hotel room every 1,000 feet,” he said, but added that he was confident in DeSantis’ “evidence-based, measured approach.”

Gaetz also encouraged his constituents to reach out to their local elected officials to address their needs. And while Shoaf, of Port St. Joe, has been fielding questions from constituents, the vacation rental ban has been a tougher sell.

“It’s difficult to respond to why does science say it’s OK for hotel or RV parks to reopen but a vacation rental right next door cannot,” he told Florida Politics.

More than a month into the vacation rental ban, he felt it was time to publicly reach out to DeSantis. Shoaf believes local governments or the industry could apply their own vacation rental restrictions if necessary, and the same applies to restrictions from those traveling from out of state.

“If the data they are using to allow hotels, resorts, RV parks and timeshares says it’s OK to allow out of state customers then I can’t see how it would be different for rental homes,” Shoaf said in a follow-up statement. “After speaking with multiple local industry leaders, they have said that they would impose their own restrictions on people from hotspots. This type of approach makes sense to me.”

According to the Governor’s original executive order, which has since been extended, “many cases of COVID-19 in Florida have resulted from individuals coming into the state from international travel and other states, posing great risk to Florida residents.”

Additionally, “vacation rentals and third-party platforms advertising vacation rentals in Florida present attractive lodging destinations for individuals coming into Florida.”

Early in the pandemic, Spring Breakers drew DeSantis’ ire. And one of the main tenets of the state’s reopening outlook is to prevent reseeding of the virus in the state.

Also near the start of the outbreak, the Governor listened to concerns from Panhandle officials over people driving from New Orleans to the region. At their request, he added Louisiana to the travel restrictions in place for the New York tri-state area and set up a highway checkpoint on Interstate 10.

The delegation’s letter coincides with a lawsuit, filed the day before by vacation rental owners across the state, including Panama City. The owners allege DeSantis unconstitutionally shuttered their businesses without due process and silenced their advertising voice.

Written By

Renzo Downey covers the Florida Legislature for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at renzo@floridapolitics.com and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

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