A telephone call in the middle of this morning’s county commission meeting was the biggest news of the day.
State Rep. Jason Shoaf called in to County Coordinator Michael Morón to say Gov. Ron DeSantis supported a complete reopening of short-term vacation rentals in seven Florida counties - Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton - after each had their safety plans approved by the state.
"I just got word from Halsey Beshears that the governor has given the green light for seven counties to reopen," Shoaf said, referring to the current head of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations (DBPR), a Monticello native who previously served as the district’s state representative.
"The details will be posted shortly on the DBPR website," Shoaf said. "The message is it’s time to reopen vacation rentals."
In addition, at a special meeting later in the afternoon, Apalachicola commissioners lifted a separate city restriction on short-term rentals, as well as ending a limitation on boat ramps that had been extended to out-of-state visitors,
Commissioner William Massey had opened the county meeting with a stern appeal to lift the restrictions, just as the county two weeks ago had backed a letter to the governor by Panhandle lawmakers. But upon the advice of Morón, who said the governor, and not the commission, had authority in this matter, Massey withdrew his motion.
"People are hurting here in Franklin County, The people are out of work," said Massey.
"The COVID is still out there and we want you all to be careful," said Chairman Noah Lockley, following Shoaf’s announcement. "It’s still out, and do what you got to do and keep Franklin County safe."
The county’s Tourist Development Council outlined in a news release Tuesday afternoon the county’s plan for reopening short-term rentals. It prohibits renting to overseas travelers during the first phase, or to any person who lives in an area with substantial community spread of COVID-19.
The county plan also includes detailed instructions on how rental homes are to be cleaned, ranging from the types of cleaning agents used to what protections house cleaners must use while working.
Vacation rentals now join area hotels, inns, restaurants, shops and other tourism-related businesses in a reopening of the Forgotten Coast ahead of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.
"This is a welcome step to returning back to some sense to normalcy," said Franklin County Commissioner and TDC chairman Ricky Jones. "The whole effort to reopen has involved people from the industry and local and state government all working together.
"I know State Representative Shoaf was knocking on doors every day to make this happen and we appreciate his efforts.," he said, in a news release.
Beyond the county’s safety plan, however, Jones said visitors will feel more comfortable with the reopening due to the county’s increased COVID-19 testing which begins Wednesday under the auspices of Weems Memorial Hospital.
The testing supplements the ongoing testing for coronavirus, with priority for the free antibody testing given to food service and hospitality workers, grocery store and retail employees and law enforcement personnel.
"We realized that the safety plan itself won’t make people feel safe," Jones said. "What is going to make our residents feel safe is continued testing and continued low positivity rates. And we’re doing that."
According to the Florida Department of Health, 317 people have been tested in Franklin County to date, with two positive cases which have since fully recovered.
"We are happy to invite our visitors back to their home away from home," said John Solomon, Franklin County TDC director. "We have so many outdoor activities that are perfect for social distancing and our communities are more than ready to get back to work with precautions in place."
One thing visitors should be aware of in advance of the busy weekend. The commissioners approved a request from Sheriff A.J. Smith that county-approved wreckers be able to "roam and tow" any cars parked illegally in a posted no-parking area, without first having to call a deputy to the scene. Such violations carry a $106 fine.