Summit County officials deny lodging exemptions amid level red restrictions
Commissioners look to find leeway within state pandemic rules on gatherings
Members of Summit County’s lodging and short-term rental community expressed their disappointment after county officials declined a request to allow exemptions for lodging booked through the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season during their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
On Wednesday, Dec. 23, Mary Waldman, owner of Summit Mountain Rentals — which includes 250 short-term and 50 long-term rentals — said lodging properties like hers are “devastated.” She said she had hoped the county’s declining COVID-19 numbers might have helped their case. Christmas cancellations have already rolled in, and she said many lodging companies are about to lose New Year’s reservations.
“(Lodging companies) were sending out (cancellation) notices after yesterday’s (Board of Health) meeting,” Waldman said. “… To wait for the vaccine, I don’t know if that makes sense. The numbers don’t support the actions that are in place today.”
Waldman said holiday cancellations are even more painful than the ones they endured in March, as 50% of some short-term rentals’ annual business comes during the holiday season. She added her concern is not just for property managers, but also for workers like housekeepers, cleaners and maintenance personnel.
“I think that there is some sentiment short-term rentals are not ‘one of us,’ or ‘local,’ but we are,” Waldman said. “We are your neighbors, we are the employers who take care of you. We are your friends, your kids and we have kids in school and day care.”
Dozens of comments, criticisms and questions echoing Waldman’s sentiments were heard during Tuesday’s Zoom Board of Health meeting. County Manager Scott Vargo said the criticism centered on regulation classification, monitoring and enforcement disparities between Summit County and other similar counties in the state’s level red pandemic regulations.
Vargo asked Cameron Turpin, the county’s assistant attorney, whether lodging could be included in the state’s 5 Star Business Certification Program, which allowed more than 100 county restaurants to reopen for limited indoor dining during the level red restrictions. Turpin said lodging doesn’t qualify and added she doesn’t feel the county should push the state on it “or we may lose the entire program.”
Turpin said another county in level red has grandfathered in holiday reservations made before Nov. 19, but added that is against the state order and also not consistent with past practices.
“It’s hard from a legal, defensible standpoint to explain how that is OK,” Turpin said. “Everyone else, when the rules changed, had to change with them as well.”
County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said some people are questioning whether lodging should be considered a gathering as described in COVID-19 regulations. She said some other counties are not considering lodging as a gathering, and have relaxed their restrictions, allowing multiple families and larger parties to stay in local lodging.
Turpin said the state specifically told the county short-term lodging is considered a gathering. She said the state’s definition of public versus private gatherings isn’t wholly clear though, acknowledging the terminology on gatherings is perplexing for many.
“If you’re in an office and following COVID protocol, and in the entire building there’s more than two households, that’s not considered a gathering,” Turpin said. “It’s almost a definition by way of elimination, which is always a tough definition. … Really, it’s social situations — if you’re just at someone’s house for the purpose of going to see friends — that would be, maybe, the easiest way to define a gathering. The legalese of it is always really tricky.”
When asked if lodging properties could receive a waiver from regulations if renters provide proof of a negative test before travel, Vargo said that’s not possible.
Lawrence said the county government can’t ignore the economic impact the regulations will have throughout the community. She said a professional management company lost $32,000 in one day with just two cancellations. She added Summit “seems to be on our own here” in terms of how the county is interpreting and enforcing lodging regulations, and adding she supports grandfathering preexisting reservations “in some way.”
Amy Kubiszyn, the CEO for River Ridge Rentals — which manages 65 properties — said she provided the county with a chart showing an inverse statistical relationship between spikes in cases since the start of the pandemic and number of local rental reservations.
She acknowledged the statistics could be more “correlation than causation,” but thinks that high reservation rates could be leaving local workers with less time to gather and potentially spread the disease. She added a 25% decline in reservations has already been seen for Dec. 23 through Jan. 5 across 2,000 local properties.
Commissioner Thomas Davidson said he’d love to restore “everybody’s economic vitality” completely, but doesn’t think that’s possible without an accompanying surge in COVID-19 cases.
Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier cautioned loosening any regulations, saying the county “needs to save its January, February and March.”
Lawrence brought up the idea of permitting larger short-term rental units to operate with reduced capacity.
Vargo said he’d reach out to the state to see if there were any possible reclassifications they’d consider. He added that he received dozens of messages of groups of two or more households canceling reservations for larger rentals and then renting multiple smaller units to meet the regulation requirement, and eventually gathering anyway.
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