On March 30, Valley County commissioners sent a letter to all short-term rental establishments, hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and RV parks within their county boundaries. Their letter states that landlords of short-term rental properties can now only rent to individuals who are providing essential services in the community, or are quarantining themselves.
Any violation of this order (aka renting to the wrong person) is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
There is a balance between public safety and counter-productive regulation. During this COVID-19 pandemic, many local government officials are carefully navigating that balance, but one of the signals for when that balance has tipped is when the government begins to shut down businesses that could easily be kept open with additional safety measures. Short-term rental units, like AirBNBs, could remain open for business with proper social distancing (like renting only to individuals and family units) and increased sanitization efforts (such as waiting a certain amount of time between renters and thoroughly cleaning the unit). Instead, Valley County has chosen to shut most short-term rental activity down.
There is also a balance between the role of individuals and the role of businesses during this pandemic. This order again tips that balance, since landlords in Valley County are now legally burdened with extensive screening of renters. They are responsible to determine that the person they are renting to is offering a local essential service, that the would-be renter is quarantining themselves, or that the renter is otherwise homeless (an exception granted in Governor Little’s stay-at-home order). And, if the landlord is wrong and rents to a non-essential person, that landlord can be slapped with a misdemeanor.
This order also negates the opportunity for individuals to take part in socially responsible behavior. The order allows landlords to rent to people who are quarantining themselves, but a quarantine is different from social distancing. Some people need to distance themselves from their primary residence for the safety of others, or even for their own sanity. But the letter from the Valley County commissioners does not distinguish what counts as quarantine versus distancing. Experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine apply the term quarantine only to those who have been exposed to the virus, and are isolating themselves until they can tell if they have contracted it. Someone who has not had a confirmed exposure, but still wants to separate themselves from older relatives, for example, does not fit the definition of quarantine. With no clear definition provided by Valley County commissioners, it makes it even harder for landlords to decide who they can rent their properties to.
This is clearly a challenging time for elected officials and there is a lot of effort on their part to find a balance between public safety and counter-productive regulation. However, this order does not strike that balance. Valley County commissioners should not focus on shutting down short-term rentals. Instead, the commissioners should use their time to set increased cleanliness standards and other conditions that landlords of short-term rentals can meet to continue normal operations. Otherwise, the indefinite loss of income for which most of these landlords are poised could destroy the rental landscape in cities like McCall and Cascade.