FORT WALTON BEACH — Before the decision to reopen short-term local rentals was even formalized, phones were ringing at local rental companies.
In fact, prospective visitors have been calling for weeks to get information on when the rental market, which accounts for a large share of local vacation lodging options, might resume.
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“The phones are ringing off the hook,” said Tracy Louthain, director of marketing and communications for Newman-Daily Resort Properties, Inc. “People have dozens of questions trying to navigate the landscape, the new norm.
“People have been trying to book for weeks.”
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Local vendors got the good news Tuesday that the ban on short-term rentals had finally been lifted.
Walton County voted unanimously at a same day emergency meeting to allow short-term vacation renters to re-open for business.
Brittany Blackman, operations manager for Gibson Vacation Rentals, which has short-term rental properties in Walton and Okaloosa counties, called in to the Zoom videoconferencing broadcast of the meeting
“I just want to send you guys a gigantic air hug,” she told commissioners. “I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
The move was effective immediately, although commissioners cautioned eager vacationers that short-term rental property owners and operators might need some time to gear up operations that had been idled for nearly two months.
Okaloosa County commissioners met early Tuesday morning to ratify the state approval of the county’s plan, which was submitted by County Administrator John Hofstad on Saturday.
In neighboring Santa Rosa County, District 4 County Commissioner Dave Peich said, "I'm pleased the governor delegated the decision on short-term rentals to the local governments with approval of a plan ... Vacation rentals are a vital economic driver in Santa Rosa County and having them open prior to Memorial Day is great news for our businesses and visitors.“
Local short-term rental bans were lifted just days after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that county governments could submit plans for safely resuming short-term rentals.
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On Friday, after DeSantis announced that counties could submit those plans, a number of counties were exceedingly quick on the draw, including Walton, where 87 percent of vacation accommodations are short-term rentals, and Okaloosa, for which short-term rentals account for 77 percent of lodging units.
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The plans submitted to the DeSantis administration — or, more specifically, to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates short-term vacation rentals — are broadly similar, outlining steps to be taken in each county to ensure safety and health, and regulating rentals to people coming from areas identified as “hot spots” for the spread of COVID-19.
Currently, those places include New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana, but the locales for which special rental — or non-rental, as the case might be — are prohibited could change as the state of Florida takes ongoing looks at the spread of COVID-19 across the United States.
The restrictions will pose challenges to property owners and rental companies. They vary somewhat from county to county, which means owners or companies with properties in more than one county will have to meet different requirements.
For example, in Walton County, units cannot be rented to anyone from Louisiana -- a popular home state for local tourists -- for 45 days. In Okaloosa, anyone from Louisiana is required to be quarantined for a full 14 days -- a condition that initially appears to fall on the owner or rental agent to enforce when the booking is made.
Here are brief looks at parts of the plans submitted from Okaloosa and Walton counties:
In Okaloosa County’s plan, one provision states that short-term vacation rental property owners and managers “will provide COVID-19 guidance of any local restrictions that are in place during the guest stay and other related local information.”
Walton County’s plan goes into significant detail regarding the cleaning of rental properties, noting in one section that “all cleaning personnel and vacation rental staff should wear masks and disposable gloves and be trained in their proper usage. (Including disposing of gloves and masks as needed.)”
Louthain said that her company has been working for weeks to prepare the units and had already done much of the advance work, including having sanitizer dispensers installed just inside the door of every unit.
But despite their intensive preparation, the new requirements still posed challenges, including giving renters a way to easily clean surfaces during their stays.
Items like Clorox wipes have been unavailable in local stores and online for weeks. Louthain said she went to 20 different websites and that wipes like that were back-ordered on every one.
While agencies and owners have been busy trying to sort out bookings, folks who have been riding out the pandemic at home and dreaming of a beach vacation were also working hard.
Emily Golden, who lives in the Atlanta area, said Tuesday she’s been wanting to come to the Destin area since she was a child.
“What made me want to come here, I’ve always heard it’s beautiful and it’s family-friendly and it’s one of the nicest places to stay in Florida.”
She spent Monday night as she had spent much of Friday, trying to find a rental that was available and in their price range. As of Tuesday evening, she hadn’t found a rental yet, but was still planning to spend Thursday though Monday at a local hotel.
“We’re waiting for the dust to settle,” she said, adding that they would start searching again Wednesday. “There’s no clear way to find out which properties have decided they’re going to open.”