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Panhandle counties open for vacation rentals

Other counties are pending approval.

The state has approved plans for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties to reopen their vacation rental industries.

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), many of which did so at the end of the week.

Each of the counties had hoped to be open for business by Monday, but the state handed down the clearance Tuesday.

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.

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.

A list on DBPR’s website showed the seven plans as approved. Later in the day, the department added Wakulla County to the list.

Duval and Nassau counties, also in a lightly-impacted part of the state, submitted their proposals Tuesday to lift the ban.

“Short-term rental properties are vital to many residents across the Panhandle. … This brings us one step further in opening our economy back up in a safe manner and getting people back to work,” Rep. Jayer Williamson, a Pace Republican, told The News Service of Florida.

Rep. Alex Andrade, who represents parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, told the News Service on Tuesday that reopening vacation rentals will allow the area to recover faster because the region depends on tourism to “survive the rest of the year”

“I am grateful to Gov. DeSantis and his team for recognizing our improvements with COVID-19 and allowing our local governments the opportunity to make the decisions that are right for our area,” the Republican said in a prepared statement.

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.

DeSantis’ Re-Open Florida Task Force, which included representatives from the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Walt Disney World Resort and the Fontainebleau luxury hotel in Miami Beach, last month recommended including restrictions on vacation rentals for most of the state’s reopening process.

For example, the task force recommended that hosts only be allowed to rent to Florida residents and be banned from accepting reservations from international travelers or from visitors who live in cities that are known hot spots for COVID-19. The task force did not recommend restrictions for hotels, motels, resorts and time-share developments.

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Material from The News Service of Florida was used in this post.

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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