Vacation rental ban could cause ‘irreversible’ damage to Franklin County tourism

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With peak beach season around the corner, owners of vacation housing companies in Franklin County are worried that a continued prohibition on rentals will all but kill their business. (Photo: Cara Fleischer)

With peak beach season around the corner, owners of vacation housing companies in Franklin County are worried that a continued prohibition on rentals will all but kill their business.

The ban, extended until Phase 2 of reopening the state begins in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, excludes hotels, motels, inns, resorts and long-term rentals, a caveat that is drawing ire from at least one rental company on St. George Island.

“We are the working people who help fuel the economy in many panhandle counties and we will help lead the economic recovery,” wrote Alice D. Collins, the president of Collins Vacation Rentals in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis. “We support your efforts and appreciate all that you are doing, but our tourist community is furious over this disparate treatment and we respectfully ask you to reconsider before the damage is irreversible.”

Related opinion: Vacation rental ban will decimate Franklin County, St. George Island | Opinion

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Tourists enjoy a morning at the beach on St. George Island early Saturday morning, Oct. 12, 2019.  (Photo: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat)

Collins, who has operated her business on the island since 1973, said the ban inhibits her and other vacation rental businesses but has a cascading effect on others, from restaurant and grocery workers to cleaning services and plumbers, that rely on tourism.

The reopening plan allows restaurants to have a 25% capacity on indoor seating and to allow socially distanced outdoor diners. It also permits retail establishments to operate at 25% capacity.

She pointed to the hazards associated with hotels – shared lobbies, pools, dining areas, elevators and the proximity of rooms – and asked that two “poison pills” outlined in the Phase 2 reopening guidelines be amended.

The guidelines prohibit rentals to anyone traveling internationally or from an area with substantial community spread of the virus and would require a three-day wait time between guest arrivals.

“The provision requiring 72 hours between guests is irrational and not based on sound science. If it were, it would be equally applied to others in the hospitality industry who pose an equally if not more significant public health threat than vacation rentals,” Collins wrote. “Second, the ban on out-of-state renters is a disaster.”

The island, which brings in 60% of the tourism revenue of the coastal county, is geographically isolated, making it a popular driving destination for people from surrounding states. Add in the slow return of vacation rentals following Hurricane Michael in 2018, and the ban adds additional strain on the county’s income. 

Franklin County officials opened beaches last week with limited hours at sunrise and sunset, but Memorial Day weekend and the summer months are typically when Panhandle communities bring in most of their revenue from vacationers, requirements Collins said arbitrarily punish an entire sector of the vacation industry.

“It has already been devastating to have ZERO income for the month of April and now we are into May again starting at ZERO,” she wrote. “Please treat us fairly…so that we may try and salvage what is left of our peak season so we are not forced to shut our doors on guest, owners and employees as they all rely on this industry to feed their families.”

Contact Karl Etters at ketters@tallahassee.com or @KarlEtters on Twitter.

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