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‘Corona discount’: Gov. Wolf to ban Airbnb after Poconos become per-capita COVID leader

Some Pennsylvania short-term rental owners are advertising their spaces as respite from coronavirus. Officials in the Poconos want to shut down the market. (screenshot)

Some Pennsylvania short-term rental owners are advertising their spaces as respite from coronavirus. Officials in the Poconos want to shut down the market. (screenshot)

Update 8:35 p.m.

After a surge of coronavirus cases in the Poconos that some attributed to out-of-state travelers, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration says it is moving to remove short-term rentals such as Airbnb from the state’s list of “life-sustaining” businesses during the shutdown. 

Monroe County, which has been under a ‘stay-at-home’ order since March 23, has become a coronavirus hot spot in Pennsylvania. As of Wednesday morning, it had 236 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the most per capita in Pennsylvania, leading neighboring Pike County and each of the five counties in the Philadelphia area. 

“The governor agrees that short-term rental properties should not be in operation and the administration is working on guidance to address this,” said Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger in an email. 

Kensinger could not say if the ban was immediate, if there are limitations on who it would affect, or provide any other details on the policy change. 

In recent decades, Monroe County has seen a population boom, with many new residents who commute to New York City for work.

As New York and New Jersey became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.,  the Wolf administration was pressured by local politicians who were not happy with attempts by rental owners to drum up escape-from-New York coronavirus tourism. 

“We are seeing an influx of New York license plates,” said State Rep. Maureen Madden (D-Monroe).“They’re actually coming here, they’re spreading more germs, they’re taking more germs back.” 

State Senator Mario Scavello (R-Monroe) authored a Facebook post Monday morning asking people to send him short-term rental advertisements so he can forward them to the state police. 

Late Tuesday, after getting word of the change, Scavello took to Facebook again: “THANK YOU GOVERNOR WOLF.” 

‘What am I supposed to do, evict them?’

Wolf’s decision has left rental property owners and travelers scrambling.

For some, the pivot to coronavirus advertising was an opportunity as traditional tourism dried up in the wake of the shutdown orders. Many vacation rental operators started pitching their properties as a more pleasant place to isolate than cramped apartments. 

This was Scott Kunz’s strategy when, in mid-March, he saw that his side business renting vacation homes on Airbnb in the Poconos looked to be in trouble. 

Normally, Kunz says his two large houses in Monroe County are booked three months in advance. But as the pandemic exploded throughout the Northeast, the cancellations began rolling in. 

So Kunz — a Philadelphian living in Brooklyn — cut prices, increased booking flexibility, and pivoted to a new marketing strategy: appealing to stressed-out city residents seeking escape. 

“We understand everyone is freaking out. What better [place] to stay in the middle of nowhere? In the Poconos you’ll be able to avoid the crowds in the safety of a rural town!” reads the description for his rental in Long Pond, PA.

Until Wolf’s decision Tuesday, that strategy had been working.

“We are seeing a good amount of interest,” said Kunz, who owns the properties with his brother. “We have both of our houses booked for at least the next two weeks.” 

Reached Tuesday night, Kunz called the short-term rental ban “upsetting.” 

Other rental operators have been in lock-step with Kunz.

“Are you looking to escape from the epicenter?” read one advertisement aimed at New Yorkers that was shared to the “Pocono Rentals” Facebook page. “Our properties … are a perfect place to spend time outside the tri-state area!” 

“Pocono Coronavirus-free Home/Skiing/Shopping/Casino,” read the listing for a house in Henryville, PA, which was taken down after Keystone Crossroads contacted the lister.

Some Philadelphia listings have employed similar language as well.

“CORONAVIRUS-FREE ZONE!” was the title of a two-bedroom house in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood, listed on Airbnb by John Cunningham through his real estate business, Birdnest Group.

Cunningham, who manages about thirty rental properties in Philadelphia, said he is not aware of renting to anyone who is fleeing areas more affected by the pandemic, but he said that rewriting his rental posting to focus on cleanliness has likely helped him recover from a sharp drop-off in bookings. He said his rental properties’ are at about 30 percent normal occupancy rate.

“These are people who are either medical responders or stranded travelers,” he said.

For Svetlana C, the news was like a punch to the gut. Svetlana runs All Pocono Rentals, which manages about a dozen vacation properties in the area. Svetlana, who said she has received death threats for her work, asked to have her last name withheld from publication.  

Around March 20th, her company cancelled all weekend reservations and instituted a minimum stay of fourteen days — the amount of time people who have recently visited New York City are supposed to “self-isolate.” Svetlana has been pitching her rental homes as a place for New York metro area families to hide out in the mountains: they’re offering no-contact deliveries, portable desks and workstations, and upgraded Wi-Fi. 

“Right now I have seven families in houses,” she said Tuesday night. “What am I supposed to do, evict them?”

For Basya Schechter, the impending short-term rental ban means her life is suddenly thrown into uncertainty.

Schecter, a Manhattan-based cantor and songwriter, fled a one-bedroom apartment in the city for a Poconos rental about a week ago. 

“I don’t know what this means,” she said Tuesday night. “We’re already here. [Governor Wolf] can’t kick people out. I mean, I hope he can’t kick people out.” 

She said she had never visited the Poconos region before, but was drawn by the region’s forests. 

“I thought, ‘Ok, let me go someplace where there is a lot of oxygen’” she said.  “I just wanted to be around trees because the virus definitely attacks the lungs in a very deep way.”

Schechter had been expecting to stay in the Poconos through April. She says the space has offered some much needed breathing room for her, her three-year-old son, and his live-in babysitter. She said calls to stay at home during the pandemic are unnecessary and unfair. 

“There are ways to [travel] that are obviously 1,000% safe,” Schechter said. “Otherwise, people are going to kill each other.” 

This story was updated to reflect the Wolf administration’s policy change.

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