Safety plan approved for short-term vacation rentals: may resume with conditions

SHORT-TERM VACATION rentals in Walton County have been conditionally reopened to guests following state approval of Walton County’s safety plan for reopening of these rentals and authorization by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

By DOTTY NIST

Short-term vacation rentals are now reopened to guests with conditions, based on Walton County’s safety plan for operation of these rentals and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s dropping of his executive order ban on short-term rentals in Walton County.

The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) held a May 19 emergency meeting to finalize their approval of the plan and give the go-ahead for vacation rentals to resume following Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s recent approval of the plan and his authorization for reopening of these rentals.

The meeting was held at the Walton County Courthouse.

Vacations rentals had been shut down by order of Gov. DeSantis in March to reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19 in Florida and had remained closed by executive order.

On May 15, Gov. DeSantis announced that counties would have the option to seek approval to “operate vacation rentals” through written request from the county administrator to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulations (DBPR) and submittal of a safety plan for reopening these rentals.

At the outset of the emergency meeting Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman explained that the BCC had been taken by surprise at this announcement by Gov. DeSantis—but that the county had a plan ready on May 15 and submitted it to DBPR by 6 p.m. that evening. He indicated that the plan was submitted in the form of an addendum to the letter that the BCC had sent to Gov. DeSantis earlier in the week encouraging him to reopen vacation rentals. The letter had emphasized the importance of vacation rentals to the local economy.

Chapman said the county had been pleased that Gov. DeSantis had approved the safety plan as submitted.

The plan document was presented at the meeting. Chapman noted that this was a summary based on recommendations from Vacation Rental Management Association (VRMA) and the Vacation Rental Hospitality Professionals (VRHP). “That’s our plan,” he said.

Chapman outlined proposed minor changes to the document, one being the elimination of the top bullet point, “to allow airborne droplets to settle,” which he said had been included unintentionally. The other suggested change was to correct the first bullet point under “Products, Cleaning Agents, and Equipment,” by substituting the word “product” for “project.”

Included at the end of the plan was the notation: “All visitors are expected to follow Florida Executive orders 20-86 and 20-82, and individuals and rental agencies will refrain from accepting reservations from COVID-19 hot spots in the country for the next 45 days.”

The two executive orders referenced are titled “Additional Requirements for Certain Individuals Traveling to Florida” (EO 20-86) and “Isolation of Individuals Traveling to Florida” (EO 20-82).

EO 20-86 requires everyone (with certain exceptions) entering Florida from “an area with substantial community spread (of COVID-19) , to include the State of Louisiana,” (also referred to as hot spots) to isolate/quarantine for 14 days or while in Florida, whichever is shorter.

EO 20-82 requires everyone (with certain exceptions) entering Florida from “an area with substantial community spread, to include the New York Tri-State Area,” to also follow the above quarantine/isolation procedure. The New York Tri-State area is described in the order as the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

The action under consideration by the BCC was approval of the safety plan with the two minor revisions and allowing vacation rentals to reopen based on the plan and Gov. DeSantis’s approval. District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson moved for approval, and his motion was seconded.

In public comment, the commissioners heard from 30 members of the public, all participating via ZOOM or telephone. Public comment came mainly from tourists, second home owners, and vacation rental operators and was overwhelmingly in favor of vacation rental reopening.

Eight of the citizens identified themselves as residents of Louisiana. Some questioned whether Louisiana or some parts of the state should be considered virus “hot spots.” The commissioners responded that this was based on executive order and would be subject to change with new executive order guidance.

Also calling in were two people identifying themselves as Texas residents who had concerns that they could be subject to restrictions applying to Louisiana residents by stopping in Louisiana as they drove to Florida. They were advised to avoid stopping in Louisiana or to keep stops in that state to a minimum.

Kay Brief, a south Walton County resident, voiced concern at the number of existing COVID-19 cases and recent increase in cases. She pointed out that the virus is widespread in areas other than the ones referenced in the governor’s executive orders. Brief also said she feared that people would find a way to “work around” the restrictions.

(As of May 25, there were 100 positive cases of COVID-19 reported for Walton County.)

John Howard brought up instances of social distancing not being followed at public beach accesses. It was suggested that he contact the Walton County Sheriff’s Office about the issue.

In response to questions about the requirement for rental agencies to refrain from accepting reservations from COVID-19 hot spot areas for the next 45 days, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones clarified that it would be permissible for residents of the areas deemed hot spots to go ahead and make reservations for short-term vacation rentals, but that the reservations could not be for a time during the next 45 days.

In response to another question, the officials said there was no requirement in the county plan for rentals to remain unoccupied for any set number of hours or days, but only until cleaning per the safety plan could be completed.

Anderson’s previous motion carried in a 4-0, vote with District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper not present and not participating in the meeting. The approval provided for short-term vacation rentals to reopen to guests immediately on condition of the state-approved plan and the requirements of the two executive orders being followed.

The plan covers disinfection, sanitation, cleaning products and procedures, laundering, inspections, trash removal, and maintenance of short-term vacation rentals.

(Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, and Okaloosa counties also had safety plans approved and were authorized to resume vacation rental operation.)

Walton County’s safety plan for vacation rental reopening may be viewed online at: https://www.co.walton.fl.us/DocumentCenter/View/38227