Folks who rely on the tourism industry in northwest Florida aren’t happy with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to reopen the Sunshine State, and it’s hard to blame them.
Florida will proceed with Phase I of the governor’s plan tomorrow, as restaurants and other non-essential businesses reopen with certain guidelines in place (for restaurants, that means operating at no more than 25% of capacity).
But, under the governor’s plan, short-term vacation rentals are still banned.
It won’t be for at least two more weeks that Phase II of DeSantis’ plan goes into effect. At that point, rentals can be booked — but only by Florida residents, and with a required 72-hour buffer between rentals.
Alice Collins, the owner of Collins Vacation Rentals on St. George Island along the Florida Panhandle, calls those two stipulations “poison pills” that will cripple her business and others like it.
“Governor, these beachfront communities are your core supporters and we are your allies,” Collins wrote in a letter to DeSantis. “We are the working people who help fuel the economy in many panhandle counties and we will help lead the economic recovery. We support your efforts and appreciate all that you are doing, but our tourist community is furious over this disparate treatment and we respectfully ask you to reconsider before the damage is irreversible.”
Democratic governors have taken a lot of heat for their shutdown measures, but the move by DeSantis, a Republican, is just another example of GOP governors who have made head-scratching moves. Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee left barbershops and beauty salons closed as he allowed gyms to reopen, until a groundswell of anger caused him to reverse course less than 24 hours later. Those businesses will now reopen on May 6.
In Florida, the “disparate treatment” that Collins mentions is the fact that hotels and motels aren’t subject to the regulations that are being imposed on vacation rentals. Hotels and motels aren’t prohibited from booking out-of-state guests under the first phase of reopening, and they aren’t required to include three days between each booking.
Collins said the restrictions aren’t data-driven, and “arbitrarily punish one segment of the tourist industry — vacation rental communities.”
Like large parts of the rest of the Forgotten Coast along the Apalachicola Bay, St. George Island is heavily dependent on vacation home rentals. There are no high-rise condominiums and hotels; this is a quiet, laid-back part of the coast — certainly not Miami Beach or other South Florida beaches.
Though the DeSantis administration hasn’t said so, it’s easy to guess that at least part of the reason behind out-of-state guests being permitted in hotels and motels but not vacation rentals is for business reasons. Hotels and motels are used by business travelers, while vacation rentals are just that — used for vacationing families. That doesn’t excuse the disparate treatment but it perhaps explains it.
The 72-hour rule is completely mind-boggling, though. It is no doubt based on the studies showing that the coronavirus can live for up to 72 hours on some surfaces — but if hotels and motels are able to clean their rooms between 10 a.m. check-outs and 4 p.m. check-ins, surely vacation rentals are able to do the same?
Collins said in her letter to the governor that she has 30 to 40 cleaners on staff, along with over 50 other employees.
“Our professional staff thoroughly cleans and sanitizes each home with disinfectant between each guest and our linens are provided by Alsco Linen Company, not washed by cleaners in house,” she said. “We are professionals and have been doing this for nearly 50 years.”
It’s true that independently-rented homes, through such service as VRBO and AirBNB, may not apply the same standards as rental companies like Collins Vacation Rentals — but even on VRBO, homeowners build a reputation through cleanliness. Failing to have a home properly cleaned between rentals is the surest way to earn the bad reviews on VRBO that can destroy the homeowners’ ability to rent their home.
What the governor’s decision will do for the Forgotten Coast will be sad to see — especially for a region that still hasn’t completely recovered from 2018’s Hurricane Michael. If you’ve been in the historic town of Apalachicola, you know this to be true. Several businesses have closed; others say they’re struggling to survive.
Count me as someone who was planning a summer vacation to St. George Island, but will now be unable to do so unless DeSantis changes his mind. My family of five pumps roughly $3,000 into a week’s stay in Florida … and that’s only one family (and certainly less than average, at that). It’s not hard to do the math. There are only two motels on St. George Island — and both of them small. The bulk of the island’s summer vacation traffic doesn’t come from in-state vacationers that are traveling from inland areas to the coast … it comes from out-of-state guests, like myself.
While these rural counties like Franklin County rely much more heavily on property taxes than sales taxes (60% of Franklin County’s annual budget comes from property taxes on St. George Island alone), these vacation homes are all owned by someone — and it’s not necessarily wealthy families who have a vacation home on the coast and have it rented out by companies like Collins when they’re not there simply to make a little extra on the side. A lot of times the owners are using those homes as an investment, and have a mortgage. Those mortgages are paid by the money they receive from renting them out by the week to vacationers.
Even if the governor relented and allowed out-of-state guests at these vacation rentals, few people are going to drive 10 hours to Florida to rent a house for four days … I know I wouldn’t.
As was the case in Tennessee, where barbershops and salons in Knoxville were being allowed to reopen before the shops in rural parts of the state, before the governor changed his mind, it’s another case of the rich getting richer … because the parts of Florida where high-rise hotels are the primary lodging availability will not be impacted in the peak of tourism season like the small towns like St. George Island. All of my life, I’ve heard Republicans accused of favoring the rich at the expense of the little man. The actions of some of these Republican governors seem to play right in to that. They need to start making sure they’re looking out for all of their constituents … and that should be especially true in Florida, where the panhandle is predominately conservative and plays heavily into getting Republican governors elected.