It’s check-in time on Anna Maria Island.
With the prohibition lifted on short-term vacation rentals in Manatee County, hope rose among Anna Maria Island business owners struggling in the third month of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis approved Manatee County’s safety plan to open short-term rental operations May 21 after a nearly two-month-long closure due to concerns with the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The governor previously prohibited new bookings and new check-ins at rentals for 30 days or less but, in mid-May allowed counties to draft safety plans and apply for permission to lift the ban.
Manatee County filed its plan May 19 and received the go-ahead from the state May 21, and the island’s vacation homes were immediately available for guests.
The plan restricts local vacation rental owners and managers from accepting reservations from international travelers and U.S. residents living where, as of May 15, there was an overall COVID-19 case rate of less than 700 cases per 100,000 residents.
Local vacation rentals managers can not accept reservations from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Illinois and Louisiana.
Vacation rental properties must hold off 24 hours after checkout before accepting a new check-in — less turnaround time than the 72 hours specified in phase 2 of the state’s reopening guide — as well as follow instructions for operating and sanitizing properties.
County administrator Cheri Coryea said at a May 19 telemeeting that rental managers would self-police, but potential violations can be reported to the county code enforcement department at 941-748-2071 or the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office at 941-747-3011, ext. 2260.
By the afternoon of May 22, numerous vehicles with out-of-state tags — Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and more — were observed at Publix in Holmes Beach, and the store was busy with families — sometimes 6-8 people — shopping together, mostly with no masks.
Opening the rental floodgates
Holmes Beach resident Mike Roaldi, the owner of two vacation rental properties in Anna Maria, told The Islander May 22 he’s pleased to reopen his properties and will abide by the plan.
He agreed with the decision to close vacation rentals until the state flattened the curve of positive cases, but he says he lost more than $40,000 in revenue.
He said the ban wasn’t lifted early enough for many properties to book for Memorial Day.
“It’s going to take a little while to get the industry rolling again,” Roaldi said. “But I think I see harmony in the future again and I’m excited about that.”
Marianne Norman-Ellis is co-owner of the Holmes Beach-based Mike Norman Realty, offering sales and rental management.
“I don’t think vacation rentals should have been shut down in the first place,” she said. “I definitely think a vacation rental would be safer than a motel because there are less communal spaces.”
Norman-Ellis said her 43-year-old business would weather the storm, but she’s concerned for less-established and smaller operations.
“I’m very happy the vacation rentals are reopening. And not just for us, but for our property owners and all of the local businesses,” she said.
Mike Coleman, proprietor of Poppo’s Taqueria, with numerous locations in Manatee County, a store in St. Petersburg and the original location on Pine Avenue, and a partner in Pine Avenue rentals in Anna Maria, called the rental industry the “lifeblood” of the local business community.
“I’m happy they’re open, period,” he said. “There’s not a single job on this island that doesn’t depend on vacation rentals.”
Coleman said he was not in favor of closing rentals, restaurants or retailers.
“I feel awful for the people who lost their jobs but, we, as an island, have been through and have overcome worse before,” Coleman said.
Brian Seymour, owner of the Anna Maria General Store and a former Anna Maria city commissioner, told The Islander May 22 he too is happy to see rental homes reopening.
The general store, an essential business selling groceries and sundries, did not close, but, Seymour said, March sales were down 70% compared with March 2019 and the store lost about $3,000 a day in April.
Seymour said his business usually lightens up in May, but reopening vacation rentals might provide an opportunity to make up for the recent losses.
“My concern is for the business community as a whole and what it’s going to be like four months from now,” Seymour said. “I think that will be the true test for if businesses can survive.”
“Unfortunately, I think there’s a handful of small businesses that won’t be able to survive the slow season,” he added.
Ten business owners — representing Fun And More Rentals, Island Scoops, Island Real Estate, Bins Be Clean, Book A Little Sunshine, Suncoast Cleaning, Fran Maxon Real Estate, Coastal Cottages, Island Retreat Cleaning and Island Coffee Haus — joined 63 island vacation homeowners in signing a letter asking for support for short-term rental operations.
The letter, sent the day the state approved the reopening, said, “Currently, there are 309 local businesses listed on the chamber of commerce website that rely on tourist traffic for their livelihood. Vacation rentals represent 85% of the accommodation types in Manatee County and thus generate the largest portion of traffic to these local businesses. Many local businesses have expressed support for vacation rentals re-opening.”
Island cities and concerns
But some island officials objected to new check-ins and others expressed reservations.
Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth, in a May 19 mayoral report, said it is too early to reopen rentals but her concerns were ignored by the county.
“The chief, code compliance and I sent a letter to the county administrator and commissioners voicing our concerns, but this request fell on deaf ears,” Titsworth wrote. “The fact that this agenda item was added last minute and without consideration of weigh-in from municipalities most affected is leadership at its worst.”
County commissioners voted to ask the state to lift the ban May 19, the day after the county tourist development council recommended reopening short-term rentals.
Titsworth encouraged those who resume business to provide staff and guests with face masks.
“It is more important than ever not to let our guards down. Our deaths and COVID-19 positive cases continue to rise each and every day,” the mayor said, referring to county and state infections.
In Bradenton Beach, Mayor John Chappie told city commissioners May 19 that the county did an “excellent job” creating the plan and he agreed with the decision to reopen rentals before Memorial Day weekend.
However, Chappie had concerns for enforcement. “Who’s going to be doing inspections and overseeing the property management companies?” he asked. “We don’t have the staff or time to enforce something like that.”
Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy, in a May 22 email to The Islander, wrote, “I have serious concerns with some portions of the plan, such as enforcement and fraud and potential criminal activity associated with (the rental company) ‘no-contact’ check-ins. I have relayed my concerns to the county and hope they will take action.”