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As Short-Term Vacation Rental Bookings Resume In The Panhandle, Epidemiologist Urges Caution

PCB Condos.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Panama City Beach's 7,789 short-term vacation rentals are vital to the town's local economy, Mayor Mark Sheldon wrote in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Visitors to Northwest Florida can now stay in beachfront condos and townhomes. Eight counties in the region have received an exemption from the state’s short-term vacation rental ban.

All property owners who lease to beachgoers staying overnight in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla Counties are back in business.

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation approved requests from those counties to allow people to rent condos, townhomes and similar vacation properties within their jurisdictions.

The department's decision comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Friday the state would consider exempting certain counties from the ban upon approval of their safety plans.

Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against unnecessary travel, which includes vacations. “I would certainly warn against doing that type of travel right now,” said Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. “It’s never a good idea when you’ve got this level of spread still going on in the community.”

For those who travel, she recommends continuing frequent hand washing and avoiding close contact with others. When staying in a hotel room, condo or townhome, “you want to make sure you’re also cleaning the high-touch surfaces in that rental, and not just trusting that it’s been cleaned before you get there."

It’s important people maintain a six-foot distance from others outside their home, even while on vacation, Prins said.

“Anytime you’re bringing people from different households together, you’re increasing everyone’s individual risk of coming in contact with someone who may have been infected and spreading COVID-19.”

After exposure to surfaces in highly-trafficked areas, such as public restrooms, good hand hygiene is especially important, Prins said. “Every time you touch something, you have the potential of picking up coronavirus from that object.”

Each coastal county in the region also submitted to the state a safety plan, which includes guidelines for property managers and guests.

In addition to requiring lodging staff to wear masks, counties are asking property owners to space apart bookings to allow extra time for deep cleaning after guests leave.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.