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MIRAMAR BEACH — In the days since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order for a temporary halt to the rental of vacation properties as a means of controlling the spread of the new coronavirus in the state, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office has received a steady stream of calls from people who have seen new vehicles and people in rental properties near their homes.
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The 14-day order is set to expire on Friday, and it was not immediately clear Tuesday whether it would be extended. A Tuesday morning inquiry to the governor’s press office on whether the order would be extended had not been answered as of Tuesday afternoon.
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The current order, filed on the evening of March 27, was instituted by DeSantis in an attempt to halt what the order called “an increase in individuals fleeing to Florida from out-of-state locations where ’shelter-in-place’ orders are being implemented and/or community spread (of COVID-19, the serious respiratory illness associated with coronavirus) exists ... .”
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The order goes on to note that “many cases of COVID-19 in Florida have resulted from individuals coming into the State of Florida from international travel and other states, posing great risk to Floirda residents ... .”
In Walton County, nine of the 26 COVID-19 cases reported through the Florida Department of Health involved travel. Seven of those cases were reported between March 27, when the governor signed the vacation rental order, and early Tuesday afternoon. Those cases involved travel to or from Illinois, New York, Michigan, California, Tennessee and Alabama. Some of those cases were directly linked to travel, according to the FDOH, while in some cases it was unknown whether travel was a factor.
Specifically, the governor’s order suspends vacation rental operations, prohibits making new reservations, and also prohibits accepting new guests. The order does not apply to hotels, motels, resorts, inns, timeshares or “non-transient public lodging establishments,” defined as facilities that rent accommodations for at least one month or longer.
Corey Dobridnia, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, couldn’t put a specific number on the calls the Sheriff’ Office has received from people concerned about potential violations of the order. She did say, however, that “the calls have been consistent.”
In most instances, Dobridnia said, the Sheriff’s Office has simply directed callers to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, noted in DeSantis’ order as the lead agency for guidance and directives on the executive order.
But in a few cases, according to Dobridnia, deputies have gone to rental residences to verify whether a complaint was warranted, and if it was, the complaining party then took their complaint to the DBPR. Complaints can be filed online with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation at https://www.myfloridalicense.com/complaintlist.asp?SID=.
On a related note, Dobridnia said the Sheriff’s Office is also receiving complaints about out-of-state property owners who have apparently come to their Walton County residences from out-of-state to ride out stay-at-home orders issued in their home states, even with the stay-at-home order that became effective Friday across the state of Florida, and restrictions on travel into the state.
Half-hour drives along Scenic Gulf Drive and its condominium-jammed side streets on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning revealed cars bearing license plates from a variety of states, including New York, Texas, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, Indiana and Tennessee.
Locally, Dobridnia said, the Sheriff’s Office is using its social media channels to dissuade people from traveling to Walton County.
“As much as possible, we’re just discouraging people from coming,” she said.
Elsewhere in the area, Catherine Card, public information manager for the city of Destin, said the city’s code enforcement currently is looking into six citizen complaints of possible violations of the executive order halting vacation rentals. Regardless of whether the city finds a violation or not, the case will be forwarded to the DBPR for resolution, Card said.
“We’ve had a very good compliance rate,” Card said, noting that as the order went into effect, the city’s code enforcement office sent a letter to short-term rental property owners notifying of the governor’s action.