Travelers compete for Sonoma County vacation rentals as restrictions ease

Local property managers say that most visitors booking stays are Bay Area residents seeking an easy escape|

With vacation rentals now allowed to resume in Sonoma County, travelers are flocking to rental properties on the Sonoma Coast and Russian River for weekend getaways and the extended work-from-home vacations now made possible for many amid the global pandemic.

The surge in reservations was immediate once local health authorities gave the go-ahead last week to lodging operators, rental brokers said, with plenty of pent-up inquiries from prospective guests in the preceding days and weeks.

“The demand is overwhelming,” said Cathleen Crosby, owner of Coasting Home, who manages about 30 vacation homes in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. “The phone is ringing off the hook.”

Local property managers say that most visitors booking stays are Bay Area residents seeking an easy escape after three months stuck at home under shelter-in-place orders aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Some are coming from as close as Santa Rosa or even Monte Rio and Guerneville, said Sherry King, owner of Jenner Vacation Rentals, who manages seven properties along the Sonoma Coast.

Last week, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase allowed overnight visitors to return by lifting restrictions on hotels and short-term rentals, in addition to other higher-risk businesses such as gyms and nail salons. The move updated the county’s initial emergency health order that had limited overnight stays to all but essential travel, curtailing the bulk of lodging business.

The shutdown severely impacted many vacation rental operators who were forced to cancel months of reservations and let go employees, including cleaning staff, repair people and office workers. But even with the countywide stay-home mandate, rentals did not stop entirely, as concerned neighbors reported some owners of vacation homes were continuing to rent their properties to travelers from outside the area.

Mase’s recent decision to allow overnight visitors comes as confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sonoma County and across the state continue to rise, with the county on pace to top 1,000 cases this week, up nearly 40% from just two weeks ago.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins acknowledged that some apprehension exists among residents as visitors pour into her west county district, generating much-needed economic activity, but also raising the risk of potential viral hot spots in communities where access to emergency medical care is limited.

“We all realize the lower Russian River is dependent on tourism for its economy. . . . But that’s coupled with an anxiety about what that means for our public health.” she said. “There’s always a bit of a love-hate relationship with tourism, and that’s exacerbated by a pandemic.”

There are around 1,900 permitted vacation rentals in unincorporated Sonoma County, which encompasses all of the coast and spans most of the Russian River and surrounding vineyards, including prime rental destinations in Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. Hundreds more exist inside local cities, though some such as Sonoma and Healdsburg tightly regulate shorter-term rentals.

Hopkins conceded that throughout the crisis, outside visitors have defied orders to stay home and booked local rentals. Some have also shown little or no regard for pandemic precautions, including mandatory face coverings and proper social distancing.

Sonoma County Tourism is hoping to put both local residents and tourists at ease through what it has dubbed the Safe Travels Promise, an effort to remind visitors to observe public health regulations.

Claudia Vecchio, president and chief executive officer of Sonoma Tourism, said the group has distributed signs to managers and owners to post in their properties and is creating an online video that she described as “our version of the in-flight safety video.”

“It’s a chance to let (visitors) know we’re taking this seriously and convey to them what traveling in Sonoma County means,” Vecchio said.

To safely accommodate those guests, property managers and owners must adhere to state guidelines detailed in a 15-page handbook specifying protocols for cleaning, physical distancing and health screening. Rental homes also must be currently unoccupied and cleaning staff should wait one to three days after guests check out before cleaning a residence.

“It’s safer than a hotel where people are coming and going,” said King of Jenner Vacation Rentals.

King added that Airbnb, the popular vacation rental website that she uses to list some of her homes, provides managers and guests with health and travel precautions. Other rental sites, including VRBO, offer similar information.

Liza Graves, a co-founder of Sonoma-based Beautiful Places, who manages about 30 properties in Sonoma and Napa counties, said she has seen an increase in requests for longer-term stays of at least a month since more people are working remotely during the pandemic.

“I think people are realizing they can go on a work vacation,” Graves said. “They can stay in a private home close to where they live, but it still provides a change of scenery.”

Crosby, with Coasting Home, said she’s also booked more long-term stays. In addition, she’s started receiving inquiries from out-of-state tourists, some of whom are looking to flee areas experiencing dramatic increases in new coronavirus cases, such as Arizona and Florida. She recently turned down guests planning to visit from those states as Sonoma County saw its own daily caseload rise.

“Just piling up those circumstances on top of each other, we just said no,” Crosby said.

Despite the high demand, less than half of the 30 vacation properties she manages in Sonoma and Mendocino counties are open to rent. One reason, Crosby said, is some property owners aren’t prepared to adhere to the strict sanitation guidelines and dayslong wait times between house cleanings.

“It’s messing with occupancy and reducing revenue,” she said. “A lot of owners are saying, ‘This doesn’t make any sense for now.’”

Still, Crosby said that even if public health restrictions make renting out vacation properties more difficult, she plans to follow the rules closely to help protect visitors, staff and local communities.

“As a business owner, the paradox is wanting to be open and back in businesses but being very concerned about what possible consequences there might be,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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