Summit County officials discuss differing restrictions for restaurants and lodging
At Tuesday’s Summit County Board of Health meeting, newly sworn-in Commissioner Tamara Pogue spoke bluntly, saying she knows many people feel public health decisions are “arbitrary and difficult.”
Pogue said she “has confidence” in Public Health Director Amy Wineland, County Manager Scott Vargo and prior commissioners who steered the county’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic since March. That said, she added, “I really want to fight for balance here.”
“I think for everyone on this call, it’s incredibly important to remember public health and safety is our top priority,” Pogue said. “But that must be balanced with economic and behavioral health.”
Pogue and fellow new Commissioner Josh Blanchard didn’t have to wait long for the discussion to turn to how to approach regulations for different sectors of the community and economy, specifically restaurants and lodging.
County Manager Scott Vargo and Assistant County Attorney Cameron Turpin brought up proposed changes to the county’s public health order for those industries, including amending the verification process for short-term rentals to put more liability for health order violations on the renters who stay in lodging properties rather than on lodging managers or owners.
The Board of Health did not come to a resolution on the topic at Tuesday’s meeting, but the discussion was extensive.
“It’s difficult for the property owner or manager to really validate who it is who will be arriving at the unit they are renting,” Vargo said.
The proposed change would require lodging properties to receive confirmation from all renters that they are aware of and in compliance with the public health order rather than requiring owners and entities to be responsible for confirming renters identities.
Pogue mentioned consistency and brought up the idea for the county to ask short-term rentals to abide by the same rules it is asking restaurants to follow.
“What I’ve heard from folks in the community is we are not consistent with that,” Pogue said.
Blanchard also expressed concerns that the current measures were “punitive in nature” and “lacking parity.”
“Lodging is very different than a restaurant,” Wineland countered, saying the county is aware of some lodging groups as large as 30-40 people.
“You don’t have groups of 30-40 people sitting at a restaurant,” Wineland said. “Restaurants are in jeopardy of losing their five-star certification if they do not follow the order. There are different ways of holding each industry accountable.”
Vargo agreed the comparison is not “apples to apples,” in part because of the discrepancy in the amount of time people spend together and unmasked in the two settings. Vargo clarified, though, that the 10-person and two-household maximum is the same for both industries.
Vargo said the county has been hearing from members of the short-term lodging community who think there has been more enforcement of their rules versus restaurants, which Vargo admitted “might be the case.”
To that point, Lawrence said she has yet to be asked by restaurant staff to verify her household specifics in her “many times” at a restaurant in recent weeks.
“With my accent, I could be from the South,” Lawrence said. “No one confirmed we are from the same household. We are putting an extra step in penalty for short-term rentals when, in reality, the penalty should be on the traveler.”
As of Tuesday, Wineland said only one property manager had been ticketed, with most citations going to renters.
Vargo said another variable making the process challenging for lodging entities and the county is that most renters are checking in remotely without human-to-human contact.
Pogue then suggested that county officials observe the check-in process, noting “the process is almost as important as the language” in the order.
“Maybe I need to go watch a check-in and see what it looks like, who has the liability,” Pogue said. “… My goal is to make sure renters are doing the right thing and not putting undue liability on business owners who are just trying to do what we told them to do.”
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