Many hotels and vacation home rentals have been full amid the height of the pandemic and California’s stay home order, and that doesn’t sit well with some lodgers at Lake Tahoe.
El Dorado County is part of the greater Sacramento region that is under a stay home order and hotels and VHRs are supposed to be closed for in-state reservations unless the stay is essential.
The Coachman Hotel, near Stateline, closed on Dec. 10 on the first day the stay home order went into effect. The order will last at least three weeks depending if region hospitals are above the 15% threshold for intensive care unit capacity.
“We were hopeful that we would be in operation for the holiday season,” said General Manager Jake Rodriguez and added that it was important to follow the order to keep employees and guests safe and aligning with the ethics of operations. “From the beginning we wanted people to understand that we are taking this [COVID-19] seriously. The idea of encouraging travel at this time doesn’t sit well with us. It [closing for three weeks] was the right thing to do for the community. It was really unfortunate to see hotels operating this past weekend.”
The Coachman was fortunate to have most of their staff stay on. Management recently bought a new property where they have employees helping with infrastructure during the closure period. Also, Rodriguez says that he and the staff are trying to focus on the positives throughout the situation.
“The entire team finally gets to have the holidays off to spend with their families,” he said.
Rodriguez said that while the staff won’t be working, they will be paid during the holidays.
“It was really unfortunate to see hotels operating this past weekend,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez stressed that this is an incredibly hard time for small businesses and that he doesn’t know what it’s like walking in the shoes of other businesses around town.
“There is a lot of emotion going on right now,” he said.
While a handful of establishments are following the order, many are not.
The Tribune called some lodgers to verify after receiving numerous complaints of hotels completely ignoring the order.
As written out in the order, essential stay used for COVID-19 mitigation and containment measures, treatment measures, accommodation for essential workers or those displaced as a result of fire or other emergency, or housing solutions, including measures to protect homeless populations.
Nonessential reservations are available but the stay is the minimum time period required for quarantine, 14 days.
Failure to comply with the order may be punishable by fine and as a misdemeanor, revocation of a business license, or court-imposed penalties.
Chris Fiore, city of South Lake Tahoe communications manager, said that while they are relying on people to let them know of hotels not following the rules, the city is small and doesn’t have the resources to ensure all lodging facilities are following the orders.
“VHR’s are not exempt from the order, unless for essential workers,” he said. “We’re fielding a lot of calls and following up.”
Travel sites, such as Airbnb and VRBO are not asking guests renting homes if they are essential workers.
Fiore said that violations from the city can be misdemeanors, but there is also state enforcement though Cal/OSHA and others.
“We are doing our best,” Fiore said.
While Nevada is right next door, the rules are different just over the state line which Fiore says makes things more challenging.
“We are really asking people for personal responsibility,” he said. “Do the right thing.”
One Dec. 13, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak extended Nevada’s “Statewide Pause” that started Nov. 24 until Jan. 15. The pause limits public gatherings, private gatherings and food establishments but doesn’t limit lodging. In fact, Nevada tourism officials want people to come and on Monday declared the state is open with precautions in place.
The state distributed nearly $1.7 million in grants to rural organizations and groups under a “Discover Your Nevada” campaign “to promote that they are open for visitors and … have safety practices in place to help keep visitors and residents safe,” the Associated Press reported.
Lodging, other than cleaning procedures, hasn’t been limited in Nevada. Stays also do not need to be considered essential. Casino floors have limited capacity to 25%.
VHRs are not exempt from stay home order
Many local residents have noticed vacation home rentals are busy and are upset about it.
With the ski resorts still open, travelers are still coming up to enjoy the snow and slopes. The regional stay home order doesn’t specify if people should stay home in their regions, or stay closer to home within their counties.
One South Shore resident, Doug Kissman, said the VHR next door to him has been occupied despite the order and currently has nine guests, including children. The homeowner sent Kissman a letter stating that property management company, Grand Welcome, verified the guests were essential workers.
While he doesn’t blame the homeowner, he does blame the property management company, which operates VHRs in many different vacation hotspots.
On Grand Welcome’s website, one of the frequently asked questions is, “Can I make a reservation to get away from my current city?” to which they answered “Most of our destinations are now open for short term rentals.”
Grand Welcome did not respond to calls from the Tribune asking about their fielding process for guests. Kissman also wants to know if they are requiring guests to provide negative test results.
Fiore said the city has been receiving a lot of calls about the issue and are following up.
While the city is trying to get out messaging about the order, some of the onus should fall on VHR owners.
On Dec. 21, Placer County District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson, El Dorado County District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel and Truckee Town Manager Jen Callaway sent a letter to Airbnb asking them to stop renting homes in the basin for the time being.
“We are asking for your help in reducing the spread of the COVID-19 virus by working with your short-term rental operators and guests to adhere to the current regional stay at home order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Dec. 3,” the letter states.
The letter list ways Airbnb can help combat the issue:
1. Inform owners and guests that if they have bookings through Jan. 1, and are not considered “essential personnel,” these reservations violate the current order for our area and should be canceled. (STR operators can rent for “essential functions and travel including COVID-19 mitigation and containment measures, treatment measures, accommodation for essential workers, or housing solutions, including measures to protect homeless populations.”)
2. Work with property owners to allow for full refunds or rebooking so guests can return to our area when it is safe to do so.
3. If you are unable or unwilling to reach out to property owners directly, we ask that you work with county and town staff to help us identify noncompliant properties so we can contact those property owners.
“Airbnb is working closely with officials across the state to track the latest COVID-19 guidance and have communicated directly with hosts to inform them to check with their local government for the most current information on shelter-at-home orders,” an Airbnb spokesperson told the Tribune.
Airbnb’s cancellation policy allows the property owners to determine how strict they want to be about cancellations and it states that their “extenuating circumstances” policy does not apply to cancellations due to COVID-19 except for actual sickness for reservations made after March 14.
Not all VHR owners are skirting the policy though.
On Dec. 11, Tahoe Vacation Rentals canceled all of their reservations and refunded their guests.
“We made the same decision in March so while this time was painful, it wasn’t as shocking,” said Becky Moore, director of marketing for Tahoe Vacation Rentals.
Moore said they will likely lose about 15% of their annual income from this decision to close.
Moore said, “A lot of businesses are making these kinds of decisions to take care of staff and customers and stepping up to do the right thing.”