In many places, temporary bans and restrictions are being placed on short-term rentals to help stop the spread of coronavirus. San Diego, reeling from the travel slowdown, hasn't joined them.
On April 4, Newport Beach, a vacation hotspot, banned the units for as long as the local emergency is on. Palm Springs, Big Bear Lake, Placer, and Nevada counties have shut them down. Several states have suspended them. The only exceptions are for critical workers.
California's stay-at-home order was issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding all nonessential travel, even trips across town.
Caught off guard, hosts have sought a niche for their vacation rentals. "Unlike the closed city beaches, this tucked away unpatrolled beach can still be enjoyed," says one Airbnb listing in Pt Loma. April's rental rate is 20 percent off "due to scaffolding" on the building's exterior.
Some rentals have been discounted even more. Some have become available long-term. Another local listing for a large home advertises its cleanliness. "COVID-19 disinfected to CDC standards."
And there is a lot to disinfect: self check-in keypads. Doorknobs. Homes fully decorated and packed with amenities from coffee and cookware to bottles of bathroom lotions. (The virus can live on surfaces for hours, and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, a study has found).
Coronavirus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets, but scientists aren't sure if people can get it by touching a contaminated object, then their mouth, nose, or eyes. Another unknown is how long the air in a room occupied by someone with COVID-19 remains infectious.
The inventory of short-term rentals in the county varies. "Our last numbers from the end of 2019 shows 15,000 homes for rent on any given night, of which nearly 6,000 are hotel-compatible units (studio and one bedroom units), which includes vacation rentals and home-sharing platforms like Airbnb," says Kerri Verbeke Kapich, chief operating officer with the San Diego Tourism Authority.
"In FY 2019 the city of San Diego collected $249.6M in TOT (the transient occupancy or hotel tax), of which $29M was from non-traditional lodging units such as vacation rentals and home sharing platforms like Airbnb," Kapich says.
Current visitors are here for reasons that could not have been imagined last year: those who can't find a hotel room now that many are being used to shelter the homeless or those who have, or may have, coronavirus; healthcare workers seeking to protect their families; and those who have to travel or are willing to chance the risks to themselves and others to be near the ocean.
On travel forums, San Diego plans wobbled as March wore on, and the toll grew.
A New Yorker asked on March 4 if his family, coming to visit the zoo and other attractions in April, should cancel because of the epidemic?
"Up to you," said a local contributor whose own travel plans weren't changing at all. No, said another, "unless you have underlying health issues and are prone to sickness."
There had been about 80 influenza deaths in San Diego County this season and zero coronavirus deaths, someone wrote.
"My doctor didn’t think this was worse than flu deaths," the original poster said. "I am just concerned since we are traveling to places with crowds."
Few sounded worried. "You live in NYC where you are in crowds all the time. If you do your normal travel there then coming here should be easy for you."
But by the end of March, New York had been declared the epicenter of the pandemic. A week before that happened, the should-we-travel-to-San Diego thread swerved. A poster who had downplayed the threat told how he had cancelled every last work and play travel plan.
"What a difference 10 days make."