Panhandle lawmakers pitch localized vacation rental reopening
No, this is not ‘fake news.’ Image via Patti Blake/Panama City News Herald.

NWF daily news Panama City Beach
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.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government 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 [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


17 comments

  • Holly Cook

    May 9, 2020 at 12:23 pm

    I am the owner of a small vacation rental company and this all extremely unfair! Along with your article, It should be noted that by not giving a date that we will be allowed to reopen is killing our business also. People are canceling vacations for June, July , and even August since they don’t know if they will be allowed to come this summer at all. Not telling us when we will be allowed to reopen will leave us scrambling to rebook reservations which drives the prices down! Our company depends on the spring and summer months to float us through the winter months. For every week this continues, it further buries businesses like ours. Furthermore, our company writes very large checks each month to the counties of Escambia and Santa Rosa. These are Republican counties that support our Governor has he considered the effects of this on the counties that support him? !
    Has it not occurred to Gov DeSantis that Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn, and other chains do not face the threat of financial ruin to the degree that small businesses do?
    Wasn’t the driving force behind the “quarantine” to keep the hospitals from being overwhelmed? The minimal numbers of individuals with Covid-19 are not a threat to our local hospitals. So what justifies his decisions?
    I support Gov D and want to see him re-elected! However, not at the expense of my business. If the governor would release statements and explain the science and the logic behind keeping small vacation homes from being rented while large hotels (with gift shops, elevators, cafes inside them) RV parks, and motels remain open, I would love hear it! He needs to be careful with his balancing act and use logic when making his decision! This is ridiculous!

    • Anthony

      May 9, 2020 at 2:39 pm

      Holly, your points are spot on! This restriction on us is absolutely ridiculous. The governor has a responsibility to the citizens of this state to clearly express why the contradictions are allowed to exist. As someone that has spent a significant portion of my adult life traveling for both business and pleasure, I’m well aware of the close proximity you have in the narrow hallways going to your room and of course the elevators, communal breakfast, etc., none of which exist in our vacation rentals. The local hotels see this as their opportunity to finally run us in to the ground and the governor is at the steering wheel with the pedal to the floor!

      Does he not realize that we are tax and mortgage paying voters? That the revenue from our rentals generate significant revenue beyond our doorstep for the local community?

      I guess we now know who has the stronger lobbying group. Please sign the petition, go to governor’s website and send him a message, call him at (850) 717-9337 and tell all your family and friends to do the same! Our votes will count when HE needs them.

      Renzo, thank you for continuing to raise this issue and bringing it to the forefront!

    • Dennis Price

      May 10, 2020 at 10:09 am

      I have had a reservation on St George island since the end of December for a June trip. If this trip is lost Florida will never get another visit from me and I have vacationed there 1 to 2 weeks a year for the past 50 years. I am currently looking for another place to take my family and kids. There is no logic in what Gov is doing and I expect it is driven by his lust for power.

  • Chris

    May 10, 2020 at 11:28 am

    I am going to have to cancel my weeklong vacation to Rosemary Beach scheduled for week of May 16, and go to Gulf Shores instead. Maybe I’ll find a new resort in Alabama to go to every year like we have done in the past with Fl. It’s a shame, and ridiculous.

    • Vickie Ray

      May 10, 2020 at 9:33 pm

      There are short term rentals in our community on Perdido Key, Florida that have renters showing up and staying totally disregarding the order from the Govenor DeSantis. Some don’t think the order applies to them.

    • Bill Peltier

      May 13, 2020 at 10:40 am

      My wife and I own 2 beach front condos in Florida. One in the SanDestin resort in Miramar beach and one in Perdido Key. We use local property managers for both of them that rely on a percentage of our rental income to survive. This blatent abuse use of power by Florida’s governor is obvious in its intentions to create a temporary monopoly for the governors friends in the hotel and motel industry. So disappointed in the media for not grabbing this and running with it. It has all the meat needed for a great story.

      We will eventually sell these properties and leave florida with money in our pockets and reinvest this money in Alabama where the property taxes are half of Florida’s without the sleezy politics.

  • Diane Dodd

    May 10, 2020 at 9:04 pm

    The Sales Tax Revenue lost is going to cripple the budgets of the Panhandle Counties. I sure it will have a negative effect on the State Coffers, too. Do the right thing, Governor, don’t discriminate on our short term rental markets in the Panhandle. Many small businesses (charter fisherman, small store owners, cleaning crews, real estate businesses, construction workers to name a few) all depend on a healthy short term rental market.

  • Patricia

    May 11, 2020 at 2:16 am

    I don’t live in Florida but I’m very frustrated that Governor Desantis hasn’t opened up the vacation rental homes. I was trying to rent one for the week of May 24th to take my grandchildren and more they are so disappointed.
    Gov. Desantis, please open up these vacation rental homes. These homes are cleaned very well after tenants check out. And to be honest, i imagine covid-19 would spread worse in the hotels and resorts than one of these homes because people are passing by each other onn elavators and hotel pools and etc. In most of these homes they have private pools so it’s much easier to social distance compared to hotel pools being used by all of their guests.
    Please do the right thing and release these homes.

  • Melody King

    May 11, 2020 at 10:31 am

    We have had to move our vacation already from April to the end of May, we have 3 adult couples going, we all work full time at different places and trying to get time off and then having to reschedule the dates has been a nightmare. We can’t get a full refund, we love the panhandle but I’m not sure we will ever try this again. We can bring our own paper products food etc. The booking agents can’t tell us anything ahead of time because they don’t know so we are forced to wait till the last minute to find anything out.

  • Sunbunny

    May 11, 2020 at 1:27 pm

    Hotels by FLA state phase 1 was supposedly for essential workers.in the panhandle it has brought only vacationers. Is this against law? Appears no. Not monitoring states as we see many states that are stay at home hotels with people in groups waiting to checkin and no one checking numbers Condo opening would spread out. All the small owners are suffering. Most are alot cleaner and sanitized than the hotels here. Sad for the economy and smaller mostly retirees that own vacation
    Rentals. Hotels have opened up to underaged and problems we had yrs ago
    From spring break. Condos have limits and age requirments
    Needs to be opened before holidays to monitor affect. We already know hotels which are not as spread out and smaller areas

  • Shane L Durkee

    May 11, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    “Ron DeSantis MAKE THE CALL” and open Short Term Rentals in Florida! You’re taking a hypocritical stance leaving hotels, motels and time shares open. This is crippling small business/property owners with rental property that depend on that income to pay bills.

    This is the Money season for owners, it’s really sad that this is happening.

  • Debbie

    May 11, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    I have had reservations made since February and all monies paid in for my vacation with my grand babies to Navarre Beach. This rental is non refundable! Adding to my stress of whether we get to go, is the stress I face filing a claim for rental insurance! If you can open hotels you can surely open the short term rentals to out of state people or at the least allow those who have made reservations in advance to keep their reservations! I won’t say I will never be back to Florida or the Panhandle, but I will never rent from a company that is non refundable! You are killing these businesses financially and their reputations! The Governor should require condo owners to refund all monies for early prepaid reservations! It doesn’t make sense to open the high dollar hotels for rent to out of state people and not the condos. To the residents of Florida, I think you need to reconsider your next choice for Governor!

  • Jim Bailey

    May 12, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Vacationers traveling to FL are now well informed on COVID including do’s and dont’s. We are not leaving our homes unless we are well to do so.The risk of spread is now likely determined by the local population and whether or not they have undertaken the appropriate steps to keep safe. All this is common sense.

    • Debbie

      May 12, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      Jim you are correct! I live in Tennessee and had reservations before this all started. I did not cancel them in hopes that this would all be over. We have followed all of the orders of our state and have been home, work or grocery store only for 2 months. Hopefully our reservations will be considered pre-existing instead of new!

  • Gayle Robb

    May 13, 2020 at 7:50 pm

    As of today Wednesday May 13, are short term vacation rentals allowed?

  • wanda Davis

    May 14, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Several owners at nautical Watch 6205 Thomas Drive Panama city beach are renting!!! How can you report them???

  • Debbie

    May 20, 2020 at 7:15 am

    I had reservations for May 16th in February and the owner cancelled them and refunded my money. I made other arrangements and went to Alabama instead. I found out that my friends made reservations in January and were allowed to keep their reservations!! Something sure isn’t wrong with this whole situation!

Comments are closed.


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