With just two known cases, Haywood County is largely holding its ground as a safe have from the COVID spread rapidly enveloping the rest of the state and nation.
That’s made the already popular tourist destination all the more enticing for those fleeing hotspots elsewhere. In hopes of keeping visitors at bay, the county has issued a ban on most overnight accommodations and vacation rentals.
However, some property owners who rent through online sites like Airbnb have continued to offer bookings, according to a random survey conducted by The Mountaineer.
Many said they were not aware of a ban, a more common response among those who don’t live here and handle rentals from afar.
Carolyn Walker, who has a couple vacation rental units at Lake Junaluska, can’t imagine why anyone would still be taking bookings.
“How on earth could you not know what is going on? How can anyone think it’s OK to be moving around the country right now?” said Walker, who has turned down several reservations since the order came out. “I have been so bothered by people who either just aren’t taking it seriously or who think we don’t have any cases here yet so we are safe.”
There are more than 1,100 vacation rentals listed for Haywood County on Airbnb, and hundreds more on similar online rental sites.
In The Mountaineer’s randomly selected survey of 40 online vacation rental owners, one-third were willing to accept a weekend booking from an out-of-town visitor.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority has been doing its best to get the word out. It would normally be launching a spring campaign to lure visitors here, but is now doing just the opposite: telling visitors to stay home.
Informing vacation rental owners of the rules, let alone policing any offenders, is problematic, however.
“It is hard to reach everybody,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the TDA. “And there are some that are going to do it regardless. The county is very concerned about it.”
A nightly room tax is collected on all vacation rentals, and those in the TDA’s database have been getting regular email advisories. But not when it comes to Airbnb renters. Room taxes on Airbnb bookings come in as a lump sum payment without revealing the identity of the individual property owners, leaving TDA no way of knowing which houses are being rented out or by whom on Airbnb.
Protecting your own
Haywood County isn’t alone. From Colorado to California, tourist destinations have been swarmed with people trying to escape the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s a precarious situation for smaller, rural towns with limited health care infrastructure. There’s just 20 respirators at Haywood Regional Medical Center.
“We would be pushed to accommodate our own county residents much less a bunch of other people coming in,” Walker said.
That reality is one reason Jane Rolen scrambled to cancel her upcoming rental reservations after the ban came down last week, despite disappointing guests coming in for an anniversary celebration the following day.
“If they brought it in, it would affect other people, and we couldn’t handle it,” said Rolen, who lives in Atlanta and rents out her vacation home when she’s not using it. “Haywood County is a very small county, and we want to protect it.”
Rolen learned of the ban through an email advisory from the TDA, and also from her caretaker.
Lives over economy
The risk to housekeepers who clean vacation homes has been an ongoing concern for Ben Glover, owner of Maggie Mountain Vacations.
“Who in the world, my girls especially, are going to want to go behind them and clean in an environment like this?” said Glover, who manages an inventory of about 70 vacation rentals.
The coronavirus can live three days on surfaces, so they imposed a 72-hour waiting period after someone checked out before going in to clean. That’s not an issue any more.
“They have nothing to clean,” Glover said. “We sent everyone to the unemployment office.”
The county’s order currently runs through April 17, but will likely be extended, county leaders hint. Even before the ban, cancellations were rampant.
“It was day after day after day of nothing but the phones ringing with cancellations,” Glover said.
Glover, like so many business owners, was initially dismayed by the financial devastation, but then realized there are more important things.
“We kind of woke up and slapped ourselves and said ‘Wait a minute, this is bad.’ People’s lives, of course, come first,” he said.
Although Maggie Valley signed on in support of the county’s stay-at-home order last week, Mayor Mike Eveland said the town initially didn’t like the provision to shut down hotels and vacation rentals.
“For Maggie Valley, that is our lifeblood. It’s who we are. It was going to be a huge hit economically,” Eveland said. “But something that supersedes that is life.”
As the national coronavirus landscape has grown more dire, Eveland agrees it was a necessity.
“In retrospect a week later, now that we see how bad it’s gotten, you have to protect the people around you,” Eveland said.
Eveland, who also serves on the Haywood County Tourism Authority, understands the challenge of keeping tabs on the online vacation rental industry.
“Because there are so many of them, I don’t know how you could know who is actually renting or not,” he said.
It may well come down to social policing, he said. Over the past few days, the Maggie Valley police department has gotten calls from people reporting out-of-state license plates showing up at second-homes and rental houses in their neighborhoods.
Police go by and inform whoever arrived of the county’s rules: you can’t leave for any reason for 14 days, even for food, and you have to report your presence in the county to the county’s COVID hotline at 828-356-2019.
One such call from concerned neighbors came in over the weekend concerning a car with New York plates showing up at a rental cabin.
“They were told if they got caught outside that building for 14 days they would be committing a crime,” Eveland said.
The county’s COVID call center has fielded more than 700 calls in the past week, with most revolving around do’s and dont’s of the county’s stay-at-home-order. But several residents have called to report the arrival of out-of-towners in their neighborhood, according to David Francis, the county’s program administrator.
The county then tracks down the property owner’s phone number and calls them to explain the 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from out-of-the-county and the mandate to self-report their presence. For second-home owners, the chain stopped there, but in the case of vacation rentals, the county didn’t stop until contact was made with the renter.
The case was then closed if it was a house was being rented, the owner had to contact the people staying there and vacation rental, the property owner in turn contacted the renter.
“Everybody has been extremely cooperative and understood the reason we’re doing this,” Francis said. “One person just said ‘I’d just as soon go back.’”
In the meantime, the county is crafting yet another email advisory to go out to the tourism authority’s database. Rather than simply informing lodging owners of the rules, this one will be penned by the county itself with a warning stipulating the penalties.
One county staffer crafted a meme to be circulated on social media in hopes of reaching as many people as possible with the rules.
As for the wildcard of AirBbn renters, Collins had sent the advisory to AirBnb in hopes it would push it out to its property owners. Some say AirBnb never did so, some say it did.
“AirBnb is emailing all clients with every single update, restrictions, status, etc.,” said Julie Lapkoff, a vacation rental owner. Lapkoff said there is a level of personal responsibility as well, however.
“I’m keeping tabs on it because that is how we are all living our lives now. I do hope people adhere to keep Haywood the best it can be,” she said.
Not as strict
Haywood County’s ban on short-term vacation rentals isn’t as stringent as surrounding counties.
Most surrounding counties — including Jackson, Buncombe, Swain, Macon and Cherokee counties — have banned short-term rentals of less than 30 days. The duration puts a stop to out-of-towners looking for a temporary getaway without penalizing locals needing a month-to-month rental.
Haywood County commissioners initially considered the 30-day criteria as well, but changed the wording at the last minute to only ban short-term rentals of 14 days or less. That means vacationers can still come here as long as they book a place for at least 15 days.
Commissioner Chairman Kevin Ensley said they lowered the allowed rental period it to match the self-quarantine rule of 14 days.
“If they self quarantine they are not a hazard,” Ensley said. “You can come here, but if you do, this is what you have to do.”
There’s no guarantee they would actually follow the self-quarantine rules, however.
Ensley said considering that the lives of Haywood County residents are at stake, the county may amend its order to ban rentals of less than 30 days after all, instead of just the 14.
“I would just rather people stay in place,” Ensley said. “If you are going to rent a short-term rental, do you really want to be that guy who rents to the person who brings it to Haywood County?”