CORONAVIRUS: Walton sheriff says Airbnb rentals remain a problem
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — The Walton County Sheriff’s Office is working actively to track down owners of local Airbnb rental properties whose online offerings of lodging don’t indicate that all of the county’s beaches, public and private, are closed down.
The county closed its beaches on March 19, and amended that ordinance on April 2 to more clearly establish that the closure also applied to private beachfront property for at least the next 30 days. A federal judge this week refused to block the ordinance after a number of private beachfront property owners filed a lawsuit.
On top of that, the state is under an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis until at least April 30 that suspends short-term vacation rentals.
“We’re having a huge problem with Airbnb right now,” Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said Thursday evening during “Sheriff Live,” his now-weekly social media interactive livestream broadcast. “There were something like 100 different people trying to advertise that you could come to Walton County and the beaches were open, things like that.”
A brief Friday morning check of Airbnb listings along and near the beaches of Walton County found that the website does caution prospective renters to check local travel restrictions before renting. The website also has a separate section listing state and local ordinances and orders across the nation related to COVID-19, although Walton County’s restrictions did not appear on that section of the website as of Friday morning.
Nonetheless, most local property offerings through Airbnb on Friday did not mention the beach closures nor the statewide ban. Offerings continued to include phrases like “Literally just steps to the beach,” “enjoy direct access to the beach,” “steps from the beach,” “walking distance to dedicated beach access,” “100 yards from the door to the beach access, 200 yards from the sugar white sand and the Gulf of Mexico” and “welcome to white sand beaches!“
One Airbnb advertisement for a local rental did include a warning that “(t)he county has currently closed the public beach access due to COVID-19,” not mentioning that private beach access is also closed down.
Additionally, in contravention of the short-term rental ban, the ad stated, “You are still welcome if you want to just get away from home, feel some warm air and take some strolls along Scenic Highway.”
“We are actively trying to run those folks down,” the sheriff said Thursday. “We are trying to figure out who they are.”
But, Adkinson added, “The problem with Airbnb is that a lot of (owners) are out of state, and of course, when we call them, (they say), ’Oh, we didn’t know,’ that kind of stuff, whatever.”
“It’s very difficult to run them down, but we’re trying to do that,” Adkinson said.
Also according to the sheriff, more traditional vacation rental property operations aren’t being transparent about the local beach closure.
“We still have some people advertising with their websites, ’Oh no, the sheriff’s confused, the beaches really are open,”“ Adkinson said Thursday.
“I’m really not confused,” the sheriff told the hundreds of people watching the social media livestream. “They are, in fact, closed.”
In other comments related to out-of-state visitors in Walton County, Adkinson warned his audience about approaching people driving cars with out-of-state license plates.
“You can’t do that,” Adkinson said. “Nothing about that gives you the right to threaten, harass, stalk or intimidate someone. ... We don’t tolerate that kind of behavior.”
Also on Thursday, the sheriff fielded what has become a regular question from “Sheriff Live” viewers: When will the county’s beaches, a focus of both the community’s economic and social life, open?
“That’s literally a $20 million question in Walton County,” the sheriff said Thursday, before adding, “I think they (local officials) are going to be hard-pressed to maintain closure in May.”
“I think it’s sometime after the first of May,” Adkinson said, but he added his hope that by the time the beaches are reopened, the number of COVID-19 cases will have significantly “flattened ... out.”
“I don’t want to do this (continue enforcing state orders and local ordinances) and have to be dealing with it again in two or three weeks from now,” Adkinson said.
In the meantime, the sheriff’s office is gearing up to make 4,000 masks purchased with $20,000 in drug case forfeiture funds available to county households for protection against the spread of COVID-19.
Details on distribution of the masks, with a limit of two per household, will be released by the Sheriff’s Office on Monday.