April 2, 2020
By Matt Miller

Florida medical workers, first responders, and property owners are all under tremendous stress during the national emergency sparked by the novel coronavirus. But there is an obvious connection between them: Medical workers and first responders need housing, and owners of short-term rentals have housing they can provide. So why is Florida prohibiting them from coming together?

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently issued Executive Order 20-87, which orders owners of short-term rental properties to “suspend vacation rental operations. Vacation rentals are prohibited from making new reservations or bookings and shall not accept new guests for check-in for the duration of this order.” People who violate the order can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

The order claims that this closure is necessary to prevent people from other states from bringing COVID-19 infections into Florida. But one need not question such reasoning in order to see a fundamental problem with the order: It prohibits short-term rentals even for people who already reside in Florida, as well as for people who might want to come to the state to help address the emergency.

There are plenty of people in Florida who will conceivably need short-term rentals during this crisis. Most notably, short-term rentals can serve as a source of housing for medical workers and first responders who might wish to live away from their families because, through the critical work they’re performing, they are at an increased risk of personal exposure. And in addition to being more comfortable and less expensive than hotels, many short-term rentals are single-family residences where guests have little contact with other guests, common areas, and shared amenities that can cause COVID-19 to spread.

Additionally, short-term rentals can provide a comfortable living environment for medical personnel who are coming in from other states to help meet heightened demand during a crisis. Indeed, Florida Executive Order 20-52 expressly allows out-of-state doctors and nurses to come to Florida to provide assistance during the emergency. But, because of Order 20-87, these people can only live in hotels and motels.

While it is generally understood that the government enjoys greater police power during times of crisis, that power should always be exercised cautiously, and only to the extent necessary to actually protect people. It simply does not make sense to force doctors, nurses, and other first responders to live in densely packed hotels, while denying them the opportunity to live in safer, more comfortable single-family vacation rentals.

These restrictions also hurt Florida property owners who might offer their homes as short-term rentals, denying them a potential economic lifeline that is perfectly in sync with the public health needs of the state. Alarming data from Key Data (which tracks short-term rental trends) shows that bookings are drying up:

Source: Key Data.

This is bad. And there is no reason for the government to make it worse by completely banning all short-term rentals during the emergency. Also note that it is not just medical workers and first responders who might need short-term rentals: Anyone who has come into the state to help needs housing. They should not be denied housing that is, in many cases, safer than hotels.

The flexibility of short-term rentals makes them a crucial resource in times like these—not something to be feared. A more narrowly tailored executive order could, at a minimum, better align the needs of Florida’s medical workers with the needs of Florida property owners. This would allow Floridians to help one another during a time of great need, rather than arbitrarily keeping them apart.

Matt Miller is a Senior Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.

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