As communities tighten rules on social distancing, the short-term rental has become a fraught piece of turf. In areas like the Jersey Shore and Newport Beach, Calif., and in states like Pennsylvania and Vermont, officials have severely restricted short-term rentals to discourage residents of urban hot zones from spreading the coronavirus to lower-density locations. Recent evidence has shown that their caution is justified.
But throughout the country, hotel groups and hosts on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO continue to make direct appeals to guests seeking refuge from the pandemic. And they are finding takers.
In Raleigh, N.C., Sheri Outlaw offers a “Sparkling Clean Social Distancing Space” through Airbnb, in the little house behind her home where her great-grandparents once lived. As soon as the virus appeared, Ms. Outlaw’s catering business tanked. Then she lost all of her Airbnb bookings in early March, when the company offered 100 percent refunds for stays booked on or before March 14, and with a check-in between March 14 and May 31, regardless of the host’s cancellation policy. (Airbnb is paying out $250 million to hosts in partial compensation.)
“I just decided to change the heading,” Ms. Outlaw said, describing the detached, self-contained unit as a quiet spot in the middle of city that is “attractive for people who just need a break, something different from looking at the same four walls.”
A local couple called; they were in the process of separating and wanted a place where one spouse could stay while the other remained at home with their children, alternating every week. The unit is now booked through April at $40 a night, less than half of the usual weekday rate.
“I wear my gloves, pour my bleach, spray my Lysol,” Ms. Outlaw said of her cleaning routine. If she had new guests every day, she would be less secure about her own safety, she said, “but it’s the same couple.”
Airbnb hosts are not allowed to use the words “Covid-19,” “coronavirus” or “quarantine” in listing titles, or to claim that their lodgings are free of the virus. But it is still easy to promote the idea of a salubrious refuge.
Tania Varga describes her off-the-grid two-bedroom rental cabin on 12 acres of redwood forest, with an outdoor tub and a sauna, near Santa Cruz, Calif., as a “Social Distancing Retreat” on Airbnb.
Speaking of her guests, she said, “I have one neighbor who asked, ‘Aren’t these people breaking the rules by leaving their own shelter?’”
Ms. Varga saw it differently: She was providing an airy buffer to a couple from San Francisco who were fleeing tight quarters with multiple roommates. “The likelihood of getting sick is less,” she said.
“‘Social Distancing’ on the Potomac” was the Airbnb header describing Bryan and Cathy Gray’s riverfront cottage near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in early April.
“Most of our reservations for the latter part of March and April were canceled, but we have two properties that are completely self-contained and quite isolated geographically,” Mr. Gray said, adding that the header used to be “Plum Lazy on the Potomac.” (He has since returned to that wording and is booking stays of a minimum of 14 days, as requested by Jefferson County in West Virginia.)
“We want to be responsible and not encourage people to come out and interact in town, or with other people, but we did recognize that there were people looking for an opportunity to get out of a crowded city,” he said.
The properties are thoroughly cleaned and lie fallow for several days between bookings, Mr. Gray said, so he and his wife are not worried about risks from potentially infected guests.
Far more alarming to them is the prospect of losing business. Ms. Gray was recently laid off from her job as a sales representative for Cambria, a company that produces engineered quartz. (Mr. Gray works from home as an art director and designer.) “If we get one or two bookings a month on the two properties, that will pay our mortgage,” she said. The unit is priced at $145 per night.
As of April 8, eight of 10 hotel rooms in the United States were vacant, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. (The association’s Hospitality for Hope initiative will turn empty rooms into temporary housing for health care and emergency workers, and potentially into makeshift hospitals. More than 15,000 hotels have signed on.)
Airbnb experienced a 25 percent year-over-year decline globally in March, said Kristina Sprindyte, a representative of AirDNA, which collects data on host-based short-term rental platforms.
In an April 13 email, Ms. Sprindyte noted “a surge in longer bookings” on Airbnb, “moving away” from the typical four-day average of reservations made on the platform. “Globally, 50 percent of nights booked in the past several weeks are for at least two weeks in length.”
Extended stays bring committed revenue, allow hosts to develop relationships of trust with their guests and, in some places, sidestep regulations banning short-term rentals.
Abbott Stark, a founder of an organic skin-care company, who owns three Airbnb units in Burlington and Middlebury, Vt., said he moved a guest to a 30-days-plus rental agreement just before Gov. Phil Scott’s office issued an addendum to an executive order on March 24 outlawing short-term rental check-ins, reservations or extensions.
“Before that, I positioned one of my units as a perfect place to wait out the virus, and that’s because I had gotten several inquiries from Boston and New York,” Mr. Stark said. His tenant, Jill Peterson, a graphic designer from Brooklyn, had retreated to northern Vermont in mid-March with her boyfriend, who lives in Boston, and said she intends to remain through May. She pays $1,500 a month for the three-bedroom house in Middlebury, which has a river running through the backyard.
Other rental platforms are baking in bargains for longer-term stays. Sonder, a hospitality company with 13,000 units in 30 cities internationally, is offering a 30 percent discount on bookings from one to two weeks, 40 percent off on stays of 14 days to a month and 45 percent off for 30 days or longer. (The company lists one- and two-bedroom properties in neighborhoods like East Austin in Texas and Old City in Philadelphia, most for less than $100 a night.) It also has relaxed its policy to allow guests to re-book without penalty for up to a year after the time of cancellation.
Francis Davidson, Sonder’s founder and chief executive, said a survey demonstrated interest among people who require temporary housing because of the virus. In addition to potential users in self-isolation are those who have been interrupted in the process of moving, blocked from returning to home countries, forced to leave college dorms or are working as visiting journalists or health care providers.
The units, which Mr. Davidson described as falling between a hotel room and an Airbnb, also may be rented for business use by “people who don’t have a good work setup at home,” he said. He declined to disclose the percentage of units currently occupied, saying only, “It’s still substantially less than at normal times.”
The units, he added, tend to be grouped within buildings rather than scattered among private residences and are not targets of the same pushback as other short-term rentals in dense urban settings, where occupants resent the coming and going of strangers, particularly in a pandemic.
Like Sonder, D. Alexander is a young hospitality company that positions itself between traditional hotels and more informal housing platforms. Operating in three regions — northwestern coastal Florida, eastern Tennessee and red-rock Arizona — it owns and rents luxury houses with four bedrooms or more.
Currently, the site announces “Destination Isolation” retreats of two weeks to three months in beachfront, desert or mountain areas. All the posted prices show drastic reductions: A one-month stay in a five-bedroom house in Sedona, Ariz., is $19,000 (down from $28,000); two months in a five-bedroom unit on the Emerald Coast of Florida is $34,000 (down from $54,000). Both packages include professional cleaning, hundreds of dollars of care products and other amenities, renters’ insurance, free gas to drive to the destination and $500 toward virus testing.
Conceived with the idea of using technology to minimize physical contact with hosts or their surrogates, D. Alexander units are ideal for those seeking isolation, said Alex Allison, a founder and the chief executive of the company. Guests are given unique mobile entry codes and high-speed internet access and don’t have to interact with a soul.
In forecasting the future of travel, Mr. Allison said he saw an increasing demand for destinations where people could work comfortably for long periods, and that was before Covid-19. “We are now focused on solving the needs of people impacted by the virus,” he said.
Internationally, the idea of a rented sanctuary is taken to the pinnacle of luxury with Le Bijou, a group of 42 apartments in nine locations in Switzerland. Started in 2013 to provide “hotel service without the hotel guests,” according to the website, the company is offering “quarantine apartments” in Zurich that average $500 a night — half the usual cost — and may include a kitchenette, fireplace, exercise room or office. Private chefs deliver food to the door for an extra fee; you can also get in-room coronavirus testing from a private health clinic. The most hard-core health service, involving a team providing round-the-clock care, is $5,000 a day, said Alexander Hübner, who founded Le Bijou with his wife, Madeleine Hübner.
“In the end, we’re just a medium-size business” that was severely hobbled by the virus, Mr. Hübner said, adding that while the Swiss government is offering low-interest loans to help businesses, they do not apply to the cleaning company he employs. “From my point of view, it is the duty for every entrepreneur to have a plan B.”
He is also donating rooms to health care workers who need a break, which he pays for out of his own pocket, he said. Those who take him up on the offer usually stay for two days.