By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Vacation rentals in seven Panhandle counties Tuesday were allowed to reopen with some restrictions, after weeks of being shut down as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, approved plans submitted by Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties that allow vacation rentals to immediately resume operations just as the busiest tourist season starts in the region.
“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, R-Pace, told The News Service of Florida.
The plans were approved four days after DeSantis announced the ban on vacation rentals could be lifted if county and state officials gave the go-ahead.
As of Tuesday, the state had only received and accepted plans from seven counties, according to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation website.
In late March, DeSantis banned vacation rentals in an executive order aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. He said the move was meant to discourage visitors from places known to be hot spots for the virus, like New York and Louisiana.
But property owners and management companies have accused the governors of arbitrarily targeting the vacation-rental industry while allowing hotels, motels and time-shares to continue to operate without state restrictions.
As vacation rentals slowly come back online in the Panhandle counties, hosts will still need to abide by some restrictions.
In Escambia County, for example, hosts need to enhance cleaning procedures, are prohibited from accepting reservations from international travelers and can only welcome guests from states that have fewer than 700 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.
“Reservations from COVID-19 hot spots identified by the governor are to be avoided for the next 30-45 days,” Escambia County’s plan said.
DeSantis said last week he did not want vacation rentals opening their doors to people from New York City, which he has repeatedly blamed for contributing to Florida’s early uptick in coronavirus infections.
“If you’re saying that you’re going to rent it out to people in other parts of Florida or something that would be manageable, if there’s ways in there that clearly you have an eye to safety, then I’m fine,” the governor said.
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,” Andrade, R-Pensacola, said in a prepared statement.
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 hotspots for COVID-19. The task force did not recommend restrictions for hotels, motels, resorts and time-share developments.