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State approves county vacation rental plan

Tim Croft

The county’s economic engine is revving again with some constraints on the gas pedal.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation on Tuesday formally approved Gulf County’s plan to re-open short-term vacation rentals which had been banned for about six weeks under order of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Short-term vacation rentals provide the backbone of the tourism industry, from visitors to bed taxes.

“It is great timing because it is just before Memorial Day and the kickoff to what we hope is a healthy summer,” said Kelli Godwin, Executive Director of the Gulf County Tourism Council.

“We have a lot of small businesses that were still recovering from (Hurricane) Michael when (the pandemic) hit. Everybody has been waiting on pins and needles.”

DeSantis announced late last week that counties could apply to rescind the prohibition of short-term vacation rentals within their county.

“We worked with the board and our lodging partners and we also talked among counties to make sure we align,” Godwin said. “We are all still putting the focus on safety.”

The Board of County Commissioners submitted their plan late Friday and on Tuesday, along with plans for Franklin and Walton counties, the Gulf County plan was approved.

The major caveat is that vacation rentals are prohibited for the initial 30-45 days to international travelers or those from “hot spot” states that, by CDC guidelines, have a COVID-19 case rate lower than 500 per 1,000 population.

That would rule out travelers from much of the Northeast and Midwest states such as Illinois and Michigan.

“We are in a transition phase,” Godwin said. “This is recovery as well as doubling efforts to restrict the spread of the virus, to be healthy and have fun.”

Godwin said the TDC Welcome Center was fielding plenty of calls and many of those callers mentioned they were coming equipped with masks, gloves and would be practicing social distancing.

“That was very heartening to hear,” Godwin said, noting that rental companies will also emphasize those guidelines when visitors are traveling to the grocery store or downtown.

“It has really been non-stop (since the announcement). We are fielding a lot of questions.”

The TDC, in turn, will soon launch its “Wade In” campaign.

“Our recovery campaign will double as a safety campaign, let’s wade into this new environment together,” Godwin said.

The TDC will offer information and resources for both partners and visitors.

The plan submitted by the county to the state put a focus on the guidelines established by the Vacation Rental Housekeeping Professionals and the Vacation Rental Management Association.

“Most of our lodging partners used those guidelines anyway, but (the VRHP and VRMA) revamped their programs for COVID.”

Those guidelines mandate products and equipment used in cleaning as well as cleaning agents and emphasizes the importance of inspections.

The guidelines include recommendations for everything from cleaning soft surface and upholstery to trash removal.