Escambia, Santa Rosa vacation rentals get permission to reopen

Property manager Gloria Lemmey breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday when she saw that Escambia County’s plan for short-term vacation rentals had been approved by the state.

Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, on Tuesday approved plans for vacation rental owners in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, as well as five other Panhandle counties, to begin accepting vacation rentals. reservations before Memorial Day weekend.

Vacation rentals have been closed since March 27 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’ve had to turn down a lot of business,” said Lemmey, Citrus Door’s chief hospitality enthusiast. “Personally, for me, I had an awful lot of inquiries and had to turn them all down.”

Vacation rental owners have been fight with the state to reopen as hotels and resorts were allowed to operate as essential businesses. Originally, vacation rentals weren’t included in the first phase of the state’s reopening plan, prompting a outcry from local owners.

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis said vacation rentals could reopen as long as counties submit state-approved safety plans. Escambia and Santa Rosa counties submitted their plans Friday.

“Short-term rental properties are vital for many Panhandle residents. I am very grateful for the quick work of our counties, Secretary (Halsey) Beshears and Governor Desantis. They acted quickly while exercising due diligence,” said Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace. “This takes us one step closer to reopening our economy in a safe way and getting people back to work.”

The Florida Press Service reported that so far the state has only received plans from seven counties — Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton — and has approved them all.

Escambia County’s safety plan includes rules such as not renting to people visiting states with COVID-19 case rates above 700 per 100,000 population as of May 15. This would prevent visitor bookings in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, and Michigan, as well as Washington, D.C.


Under the plan, landlords must provide guests with local coronavirus guidelines and allow more time between bookings for enhanced cleaning. Elevators should be disinfected frequently, as well as common areas like pool decks.

Santa Rosa County’s plan is stricter and will limit reservations to states that have a rate of coronavirus cases below 500 cases per 100,000 residents as of May 14, which would add Nebraska, Maryland and Illinois to the states listed above.

Landlords provide the Santa Rosa County Tourism Development Office with a weekly report of reservations, including tenants’ zip codes and their arrival and departure times.

Vacation rentals are an important part of the local tourism economy. Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill, who represents the Perdido Key area, said it was critical to open short-term vacation rentals in time for Memorial Day and the summer season. Perdido Key has no hotels, so vacation rentals represent all short-term stays in this area.

“The working class on the West Side is to a large extent dependent on the influx of tourism dollars,” Underhill said. “They’re just coming out of their winter season. The people who need it the most, who’s being hit hardest by that tourism dollar, they’re just coming through their lean season, if you will.”

In a letter to the state submitted with the county’s reopening plan, Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley noted that the rental ban had a significant impact on the local economy.

“While we have heard from many owners, I have received information from three vacation rental owners that they have losses of over $5 million and nearly 1,000 employees have been laid off,” Gilley said. in the letter.

In Navarre Beach, the area has only one hotel, so the majority of stays are at vacation rentals, said Santa Rosa County Commissioner Dave Piech. He said his district has about 2,200 vacation rentals.

“It’s vital for our district in this area,” Piech said. “Our vacation rentals, a lot of people own and operate them as a source of income, so it will be a much needed boost and we just hope (travellers) will support all of our activities.”

Julie White, director of tourism development for Santa Rosa County, said vacation rentals account for about 70 percent of the county’s tourism development tax revenue. Keeping them closed for about two months has resulted in a loss of about $800,000 in tax dollars so far.

Rhonda Seaton-McNeill, owner of a Navarre Beach rental home, said she hoped bookings would begin immediately before the holiday. His management company was keeping a list of inquiries and planning to call back once vacation rentals could reopen.

“I hope people are following the news, the reports from the governor’s office, from the commissioners’ office as closely as we are and just anticipating that we will be opening soon,” Seaton-McNeill said. “I’m excited.”

Lemmey said she hopes the tourism industry will rebound this summer if people maintain safety standards.

“I’m going to go off on a hunch and I feel like there’s a real hunger to get out of quarantine and travel,” Lemmey said. “I have a feeling it’s going to be a robust season.”

Madison Arnold can be reached at [email protected] and 850-435-8522.

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