SOUTH HAVEN — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order does not stop people from traveling to South Haven to stay in their second homes. However, it does prevent vacationers from renting those dwellings.
At least that’s what South Haven city officials have concluded, and they’re making their thoughts loud and clear in a letter sent to short-term rental property owners, rental property managers and members of the local lodging industry. If the affected properties haven’t received the letter yet, they should sometime this week.
Signed by City Manager Brian Dissette and Police Chief Natalie Thompson, the letter urges lodging establishments not to rent to vacationers until the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order issued by Whitmer on March 23 is lifted. The order’s expiration date is coming up quickly – April 13 – but could be extended if the number of virus cases and deaths continues to rise.
“We have begun fielding complaints from residents concerned over non-resident and out-of-state visitors coming to South Haven to vacation, which is a clear violation of Gov. Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order,” Dissette and Thompson wrote in the letter. “The law is clear when it comes to what is, and what is not acceptable when it comes to lodging. Vacation lodging or short-term vacation rentals do not qualify as essential businesses. ... This is not a suggestion; it is the law.”
This time of year is when South Haven’s busy tourism season begins to ramp up, according to Scott Reinert, executive director of the South Haven/Van Buren County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We normally see bookings for the summer pick up significantly in March and April,” Reinert said. The number of bookings this year is dismal at best.
“As you would expect due to the virus and the governor’s executive order related to lodging, bookings for April and May have dropped dramatically,” Reinert noted. “I’m anticipating a 90 percent drop in revenues for those two months.”
But even though bookings are down, city officials want to make sure that lodging establishments still adhere to the governor’s stay-at-home order.
Police say they will cite any violators of the stay-at-home order, who could face a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail.
South Haven is home to more than 500 homes registered as vacation rentals. Many of the homes are listed through property rental businesses, such as Beachwalk Properties.
When the pandemic began to unfold in Michigan, Beachwalk Properties offered credits to people who had made reservations that landed during the span of the governor’s executive order.
“As you can imagine, this has a financial impact upon homeowners by displacing revenue for those future dates,” said Gerald Webb, spokesperson for Beachwalk Properties. “However, Beachwalk believes this is the right thing to do for the guests in these difficult circumstances.”
Webb, however, pointed out that there may be a few instances where it might be good to use a short-term rental during the governor’s order.
“Beachwalk has received several inquiries for guests who are seeking shelter for purposes of quarantining themselves from other members of a household,” he said. “One example was a family looking for shelter away from a family member who had returned from a trip that could have involved exposure to COVID-19, and the family member was concerned for exposure to the balance of the family. Therefore, they were looking for a home where they could take the balance of the family and the pet.”
Even so, the law is the law, according to Reinert.
“The governor’s executive order makes it clear that only lodging for essential workers or needy individuals are allowed for the duration of the order; vacation rentals are not allowed,” Reinert said. “The sooner we get through this, the sooner we can welcome vacationers back to our beautiful community.”
While tourism for April and May in the South Haven area will be way down, revenue generated during the two months only represents a fraction of the overall dollars that tourism generates, according to Reinert.
“The spring April and May season, while vitally important for our lodging and related businesses, does not represent a significant portion of tourism-related revenues for the year – about 10 percent overall,” Reinert said. “So while losing these revenues is devastating, we have the chance to save a good portion of the peak season if we are able to come through this (pandemic) in the coming weeks.”