At a special meeting Friday morning, county commissioners moved quickly, and with little or no opposition, to end more than six weeks of restrictions on use of the county’s beaches and boat ramps, effective that afternoon.
But the thornier question of whether to swing open the gates for tourists by relaxing the ban on short-term rentals, was on everyone’s mind, especially a long queue of callers who pleaded for a change to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order that these vacation homes remain closed.
By the end of the meeting, commissioners unanimously backed a request by State Representative Jason Shoaf to join with him, and six other Florida House members from the Panhandle, in urging the governor to end the ban on short-term rentals, a ban that has not been enacted against hotels, motels and resorts.
That apparent double-standard irked many of the callers, who questioned why the vacation homes had been singled out among the state’s many accommodation options.
“It’s an awful problem for everybody,” said Alice Collins, owner of one of St. George island’s earliest and largest vacation rental companies, in opening up the public comment section of the meeting. “I urge you to ask the governor to have vacation rentals treated the same as hotels and others.
“We have families waiting that want to come; it’s family traditions,” she said. “Urge the governor to stand with us, not against us.”
Several callers warned of the dire effect that continuing the ban would have on the local economy, as it cuts into a summer season that typically yields the highest monthly volumes of bed tax monies, a key measurement of economic vitality that spills over into restaurants, bars and other hospitality providers.
“We’re sitting on economic calamity here,” said St. George Island resident Tom Moses. “Local business are suffering economic hardship, and we’re sending local dollars outside the community. This economic impact will have only losers.”
Julie Krontz, secretary of the island’s business association, said “this is a domino and trickle-down effect that affects all the businesses on the island and all the employees.
“My biggest concern is there is no plan, no timeline, available and that’s causing people to cancel reservations way into future, in June and July. It’s an open-ended ban,” she said. “People are moving their vacations to other locations, to Alabama and Gulf Shores.
“It’s going to be revenue that can’t be recouped,” she said. “Our homes are so spaced apart. If people are fearful, they can stay home, they can wear masks and wear gloves. These people who are fearmongering are not considering the number of unemployed people.”
The issue of island vacation homes being spaced apart figured into several of the speakers’ comments, including those of Mike Swinehart, who owns vacation rentals on the island.
“These are vacation rentals that are not densely populated,” he said. “St. George Island is unique in the low-density nature and that isn’t representative of other areas of Florida.
“The seafood industry had been decimated, and Franklin County has shifted from other forms of industries to almost strictly tourist revenues,” said Swinehart, who has written DeSantis a letter critical of the working group within the governor’s Re-Open Florida Task Force that he argues represent companies that develop, construct, and manage condominiums, hotels, motels, inns, resorts, time shares, and other long term rentals.
“(This group) appears to primarily include organizations and companies that compete against and who will directly benefit from impacts to the single family vacation home industry,” Swinehart wrote.
Not everyone who spoke out at Friday’s special meeting agreed that an influx of island renters would be a low-density affair.
“A good deal of vacation rentals will have between 11 and 20 people,” said Apalachicola City Commissioner Adriane Elliott. “Isn’t it counterintuitive to want to bring people from high areas of infection?”
Unlike Louisiana, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, visitors from Georgia, a major source of local tourism are not required, by the governor’s orders, to self-quarantine for 14 days when traveling to Florida. There have, however, been places in Georgia, such as Albany, which had had major outbreaks of the coronavirus.
“We should all be avoiding non-essential travel, limiting personal interactions and avoiding congregating in large groups,” she said, noting that bars, pubs and nightclubs have seen their businesses severely restricted.
“I understand the economic loss,” said Elliott, who works as a bartender.
Not everyone was calling to support ending the ban on short-term rentals.
“Why are we suddenly going against the governor’s executive order?” asked St. George Island resident Cindy Whiteman. “We’re going to kick aside all the stuff you’ve been doing. The health situation of our neighbor state has not changed. Why were we even thinking about acting before the governor’s order on vacation rentals goes away?”
Deborah Feeney, a resident of Carrabelle for the past nine years, said she objected to the 72-hour wait, for cleanings between rentals, that is slated for Phase II, but she did not fully agree with the other callers.
“Limit it to essential workers,” she said. “I don’t want to be contaminated and affected by people we could have avoided coming here. If we’re importing this disease the health impact is going to outweigh the economic impact. Keep things tightened up right now for the physical health of the community. Physical health is the number one priority.”
One woman, who said she was a resident, taxpayer and business owner, said the closure is affecting “my ability to put a check in my bank and put food on my table and take care of the people who work for me.
“It’s an unfair business practice,” she said. “I’m not a Hilton, but I am a voter and a resident. I have a couple little rentals and as an individual I am being discriminated against.”
St. George island resident Brenda Karlin said she was a proponent of opening beaches and businesses, and doing away with any essential vs. non-essential worker differentiation.
She also voiced objections to those people who have called the sheriff to report what they believe are people violating the governor’s orders.
“ I ask that those individuals that are calling give some evidence how they themselves are being endangered by an individual thousands of feet away from them, before a sheriff’s deputy is sent out,” Karlin said. “Don’t be governed by fear; be governed by freedom.”
Alligator Point resident Pierce Withers said he believed that the state is following a policy that will threaten small business owners.
“All those corporations fighting to come in and develop our area, we’re playing right in to what they want,” he said. “We’re going to drive out our rental business. If we let this go too much longer, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”
Several people said they believed people who have frequented here will opt for other vacation destinations. “They will find other locations and never return to St. George Island again, which will be devastating,” said one woman.
One man said he believes everyone in the country wants to protect themselves, so people should not be in fear.
“What are they going to do, run down the beach and French kiss people they don’t know?” he asked. “You’re not saving lives, you’re trading them for Covid lives.”
In the letter Shoaf and fellow lawmakers wrote to the governor, and echoed in a letter from the county commission, they said “Next to saving human life, getting Main Street open and back to work so that Florida families can get back on their feet should be the next most important focus of your team.
“We would like to ask that you and your team carefully review the data in the Florida Panhandle. It represents a very low percentage of all cases in Florida yet, like areas with significantly higher numbers of people affected, much of the economy remains shut down.
“Our economy relies on tourism. From our vacation rentals, to our eco-friendly camping, fishing, and hiking, in our area many of us rely on tourism and all the ancillary businesses that brings to make a living,” it read. “From the hardware store, flower shop and real estate agent on Main Street to the bait shop or cleaning crew that maintains the vacation rentals, we need tourism so our families can thrive. Our hotels, motels, inns, and resorts are reopening while vacation rentals are singled out.
If it is not allowed to return soon, operating under strict social distancing and CDC guidelines, we fear that many of our constituents will suffer even more devastating losses than they already have,” it read. “The Panhandle is resilient. We've overcome significant disasters in the past decade: the BP Oil Spill, Hurricane Michael, the NAS Pensacola shooting and forest fires. We cannot allow an invisible threat and government intervention to be the disaster that brings it to its knees.”
While supporting the letter, Commissioner Smokey Parrish reiterated the need for local businesses to take CDC guidelines seriously.
“We do need to look at the economic impacts of Covid 19,” he said. “You see very few people wearing a mask, very few people sanitizing their hands.
“It’s not back to normal folks,” Parrish said. “You got to encourage people who rent from you to adhere to these guidelines. We don’t have major hospitals here in Franklin County. We have very limited resources here to respond to a major outbreak.
“The burden is on people doing the renting. We all have to adhere to that so we don’t have a spike,” Parrish said. “We have to be vigilant and obey the guidelines of CDC to make sure we keep those numbers down. As more people come in from all over this country renting vacation homes, even more we should use these guidelines.”