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Panhandle counties submit plans to revive vacation rentals

Gov. DeSantis opened the door Friday for county-by-county reopenings.

Not wanting to miss out on any more of the tourism dollars from the vacation rental industry, Panhandle counties have submitted plans to safely reopen the popular getaway alternatives.

In late March, Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down short-term vacation rentals statewide to new reservations and banned advertising. On Friday, he outlined a pathway for individual counties to submit plans to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).

State lawmakers and counties across the Panhandle have in recent weeks asked the Governor to lift the ban, at least for the region, which is one of the least COVID-19-afflicted in the state. Friday’s announcement prompted counties in Northwest Florida and beyond to submit their plans in the hope of reopening Monday.

“If you tell me you’re going to rent them out to people from New York City, I’m probably not going to approve that, OK?” DeSantis said in Jacksonville. “If you’re saying that, you know, you’re going to rent it out to people in other parts of Florida or something that would be manageable or if there’re ways in there that clearly you have an eye to safety, then I’m fine.”

All counties’ plans will discourage renting to travelers from hot spot regions identified by the Governor, namely New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana. Escambia, Santa Rosa and Bay counties’ plans go further, banning guests from states with 700 cases per 100,000 residents, adding Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

Escambia and Gulf counties would also restrict international travelers. And Santa Rosa’s plan calls for property owners and managers to provide weekly logs to the county of the arrival and departure dates and home ZIP codes of renters.

All plans would either require signage or other notices to alert guests to local regulations or cleaning protocols. The plans also outline cleaning and maintenance plans for guests, employees and contractors.

All plans but Bay County’s call for additional time between stays to allow for cleaning and all but Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties’ plans shift the industry toward remote check-ins.

The Panhandle’s economy relies significantly on tourism. In the absence of large hotels, vacation rentals drive the majority of tourism lodging, but they have been vacant for nearly two months.

Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley wrote a letter to DBPR Secretary Halsey Beshears on Friday asking for short-term vacation renting to resume Monday.

“While we have heard from numerous owners, I have received information from three vacation rental owners that they have losses in excess of $5M and nearly 1,000 employees have been laid off,” Gilley wrote. “Our residents need to return to work to generate income.”

Vacation rental owners and advocates have questioned why hotels remained open but vacation rentals were closed. Santa Rosa County Administrator Dan Schebler made the case for vacation rentals in his Friday letter to Beshears.

“Vacation rentals offer safer lodging options than hotels and do more to promote social distancing as it minimizes interaction with staff members, and guests typically have access to kitchens providing them the opportunity to stay in rather than eat out,” Schebler wrote.

Signed amid concerns about spring breakers, the original executive order noted that vacation rentals are attractive destinations for out-of-state visitors, then the driving source of COVID-19 infections. During his Friday press conference, DeSantis elaborated on why he let hotels stay open for business.

“Part of the thing is I have National Guard — I’ve got all these National Guard I’ve got to put up,” DeSantis said. “I’ve got other people I’ve got to put up, so we needed to have an ability to have hotels, so it’s a little bit different situation.”

The vacation rental ban includes a carveout for those performing military or government duties and emergency, health or infrastructure responses. Additionally, those on business trips or staying more than 30 days may rent.

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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