SARASOTA — While Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis spent most of Thursday seated before the county commissioners in a budget workshop, he anxiously waited for a call from Tallahassee.
Just before 3 p.m. he received that call and interrupted the workshop to announce that the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation had approved the county’s plan to open vacation or short-term rentals.
Commissioners had no direct comments on the news other than general jubilation, but Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County was elated.
“Vacation rentals represent almost 50% of our tourist tax revenue in Sarasota County, so they are a very important part of our tourism mix, especially along the beaches,” Haley said.
Approval of the plan, which was submitted Monday, by the state will allow vacation rentals to open in time for Memorial Day weekend and begin recouping lost revenues over the coming months in tourist development taxes.
According to data recently released by Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates, revenues from the tourist development tax plunged, dropping from $3.6 million in February to $2.2 million in March, a decrease of 39%.
In a month-to-month comparison, the March 2020 revenues looked even worse. In March 2019, Ford-Coates reported that the county received $4.3 million, a decrease of 48% on the year-to-year comparison.
Hopes that the county would receive approval were high especially after Charlotte County’s plan was approved Wednesday. Lewis told commissioners on Wednesday that he and officials from Charlotte to Pasco counties had worked to submit coordinated plans.
Lewis said on Wednesday that the counties were all in similar situations regionally.
Under Sarasota’s plan, rentals to international visitors are prohibited as well as people coming from states with more than 700 cases per 100,000 people as of May 18.
Additionally, reservations cannot be accepted from areas in the state identified as COVID-19 hot spots, check in/check out and payment must be handled electronically, and allow adequate time between rentals for cleaning and sanitation among other requirements.
Those requirements include restrictions on speaking to guests, notification of CDC and local COVID-19 guidelines and CDC resources about the virus.
A companion sheet that will go to all owners of all legal vacation rentals goes even further in detail.
Those details include guidelines on hand washing and hand sanitizer, social distancing including pools and beaches, personal protective equipment, guest health concerns and case reporting.
“Happy to do my part in speaking with the secretary of DBPR to get Sarasota County back open for business this holiday weekend,” State Rep. James Buchanan wrote in a note to the Sun.