What was the rush to reopen door for vacation rentals?

An Airbnb property in the area. [Photo: Brenda Ahearn]

Did Indian River County throw open the doors and invite out-of-town visitors to begin checking into its 80 registered vacation rentals – including 41 homes and condos on the barrier island – much sooner than makes any sense?

What was the rush? We thought the idea was to contain the number of infections, and deal with the local cases we had, without importing the virus from out of state.

Island residents can easily avoid the Ocean Drive hotels and resorts if they want to keep a safe distance from folks visiting from Miami and the New York area. But a vacation rental could be right next door or down the hall of your condo building. Short-term renters could be using your clubhouse, tennis courts or community swimming pool.

So who made this decision? The County Commission? Well, not exactly.

Just like the order to close the county’s beach accesses in March, and a host of other recent rules that affect our daily lives, the decision two weeks ago to send Gov. Ron DeSantis a plan to allow vacation rentals to operate during Phase One of the reopening of Florida was made essentially by county staff, under the auspices of emergency powers.

DeSantis shut vacation rentals down statewide back on March 27 when Florida as a whole had 3,198 cases of COVID-19 and 46 dead. Indian River County had only 15 people who had tested positive at that point.

Experts on the state task force – after dozens of hours of meetings with vacation rental interests seated at the table – subsequently decided that Florida vacation rentals would not reopen statewide until we get to Phase Three of the governor’s reopening plan (reminder, we are not even in Phase Two yet).

Then people got antsy and started pushing DeSantis to expedite things. So DeSantis told counties that if they felt they needed to reopen vacation rentals, and they could show him they would do it safely, he would sign off.

So we were more than a bit surprised when we heard that Indian River County had submitted a plan for resuming vacation rentals on May 21, and asked for copies of emails or letters from property owners who had been clamoring for such a move here.

There were no emails or letters.

No clamoring, county spokesman Brian Sullivan said. The county staff just decided it was time.

“The county’s proposed plan for reopening vacation rentals was not prompted by any specific requests by property owners or managers,” Sullivan said.

Commissioner Tim Zorc concurred with Sullivan’s assessment. Zorc said he had not received any angry calls from vacation rental operators, though he noted that one resident, Dr. Keith Clark of Sebastian, spoke at a county Value Adjustment Board meeting on May 18 stating that his vacation rental is a major source of income as a quadriplegic. Clark is an Airbnb “SuperHost” who rented his guest bedroom out 203 nights in 2019.

The county’s plan was already in mark up before Clark’s comments at that meeting. So who made this decision, exactly?

“We brought together the County Administrator’s office, the County Attorney’s office and the County’s Community Development office to come up with an appropriate plan that ensures the health and safety of potential guests and hosts,” Sullivan said.

Community Development Director Phil Matson defends the decision.

“The impetus for us to develop the vacation rental reopening plan was to help the economy recover while protecting the public, plain and simple,” Matson said. “While we are not Orlando, the chamber and local businesses can tell you that we have a strong tourist component to the local economy, without which we could see many of our businesses fail.”

“We got a few inquiries from individuals as to when we would reopen (and also got some feedback against vacation rentals generally). We consider all public feedback but the bottom line for us was not any one person’s opinion but getting back to normal safely,” he said.

Matson circulated a draft of the plan at 10:18 a.m. on Tuesday, May 19 – the same day as the County Commission meeting – asking for input. He says it was “not urgent” and staff had been working on it for some time, but apparently there was not enough time to place the item on the published agenda for the May 19 County Commission meeting and talk about it in public.

But when County Administrator Jason Brown’s assistant sent out the final draft of the plan to all five commissioners just before lunchtime on May 21 for their blessing, her email said: “Jason would like to get this sent out this afternoon.”

Zorc did not feel strongly enough to oppose the staff’s already-written plan, and he did not feel blindsided.

“I remember Jason telling me a couple weeks ago that they wanted to do a plan to reopen vacation rentals and I told him I thought we had other more pressing priorities and that it could wait,” Zorc said.

To Matson’s credit, that email thread shows he proffered tougher restrictions the county could have imposed, such as renting to Florida residents only, banning international renters, or banning rentals to people under the unenforced quarantine order from the New York area. None of those common-sense suggestions made the cut.

The plan we ended up with allows renters from everywhere, but requires anyone from those COVID-19 hot spots to rent for more than 14 days – so they can stay holed up until that glorious 15th day when they can finally, safely mingle amongst our local population. Again, any reasonable person knows that is not going to happen.

Though the state’s prescribed limitations require not only a thorough cleaning upon turnovers, but also 72 hours in between tenants, Indian River County’s plan only calls for 24 hours between guests for cleaning.

But thank Commissioner Peter O’Bryan for even getting that. We could have had one party out at 11 a.m. and the next family in at 3 p.m. had O’Bryan not spoken up.

O’Bryan’s suggestion punctuates why this plan should have been debated in the public forum – such as before the County Commission – with people for the plan and those opposed to the plan allowed to weigh in before our elected commissioners.

We almost certainly would have ended up with a much better plan – or a decision to simply wait until Phase Three when vacation rentals will be opened statewide.

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