BY ALEX HOEFT AND BECCA LOUX | Moonshine Ink

Update, March 26, 12:23 p.m.: Enforcement of Truckee-based short-term rentals was discussed at the March 25 special town council meeting. The town’s attorney, Andrew Morris, noted that if vacation-based properties do not abide by the order, police officers can issue criminal or administrative citations.

Cries from community members to pull the plug on Tahoe-area short-term rentals were heeded yesterday when Nevada and Placer counties announced a limit on lodging facilities during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The instructions, issued by the counties’ health officers and echoed by Truckee, clarify the governor’s recent “stay at home” order and demand that STRs and vacation-based lodging — including hotels, motels, condos, and other units — close. Those establishments, defined as lodging facilities renting out for a period of 30 days or less, can only remain in business: to provide COVID-19 mitigation and containment efforts (isolation/quarantine of an infected person, housing of displaced parties or the homeless); to provide housing for essential infrastructure workers; or use of the property by the owner and his/her immediate family members. 

Short-term rentals that are used for commercial purposes are not considered part of critical infrastructure under the governor’s order,” said Placer County health officer Dr. Aimee Sisson in a statement. “Short-term rentals may only continue to operate for extremely limited purposes as outlined.”

In Truckee, there’s no official plan for enforcement yet, town manager Jeff Loux explained, though he did say it’s likely to be enforced by the town, not Nevada County, should such measures be established.

“First step, we’re notifying all the hotels and we’re notifying as many of the short-term rentals as we have some active email for, a way to notify,” he said. “We’re anticipating a substantial amount of compliance … We’ll probably know in a day or so after we’ve heard from all these individuals whether anyone is not listening.”

A special town council meeting tomorrow will further expound upon the STR topic.

North Lake Tahoe Resort Association CEO Jeffrey Hentz shared with Moonshine Ink his frustration for short-term rental platforms encouraging visitors to come via discounted rates. Such an increase in visitors to the region during the coronavirus concern would likely overwhelm the area’s healthcare system. 

Other tourism economies and small mountain towns are feeling the same pain with STRs bringing in visitors at a time when all resources need to be shored up to prepare for the worst of the pandemic, which may be still to come. Mono County, for example, sensed an increase in preexisting tensions between locals and visitors and banned most commercial STR-use over the weekend.

Moab, Utah, which issued a ban on nonessential businesses including all vacation lodging establishments on March 17, made it clear to its residents that their law is heavily enforceable: Violators could face “up to six months in jail, and fines of up to $1,950. Violations also could result in the revocation of overnight accommodation licensure,” according to the town’s website. 

A DOSE OF HUMOR: Mike English graced our coronavirus coverage with one of his classic Moonshine Shine Ons. Listen to his friend, the gopher, during this precarious time.

Truckee, meanwhile, in an email to lodging purveyors, stated they are “requesting that all short-term rental activity … cease except for providing quarantine facilities or to house displaced persons.” Locally, a Placer County community petition to ban STRs had over 2,700 signatures as of publication. The petition was initiated by North Shore homeowner and full-time resident Cheri Sugal, who typically uses a portion of her home as an STR herself, though she immediately “completely shut … down because I didn’t want to become part of the problem of having people come up here,” she said. 

Sugal wasn’t surprised by the still-increasing swell of support for her petition, which is aimed at Placer County, having had many conversations with fellow area residents and finding the “vast majority” agreed with her.

She was compelled to write the petition on Saturday, after not feeling like any communication from the county “had teeth,” she said, necessary to enforce their assertion that STR commerce be put on hold. After circulating the petition on Saturday, Sugal woke up Sunday and “sent it to [county supervisor] Cindy Gustafson. It already had a few hundred signatures overnight and I said, this is going to blow up. This is going to be thousands in a few days … and that’s exactly what happened.”

Sugal doesn’t necessarily expect the county to act as strongly as she would like, she said, because with the exception of Gustafson, “over and over again [the board of supervisors does] not listen to what the vast majority of the public up here wants or needs,” citing examples where she felt public safety was at risk before, like developments approved that she claimed were wildfire hazards.

Ultimately, Sugal said she thinks her petition could bypass the county and make it to the governor’s office, if she can continue to “show that there’s broad community support.” 

Now that the counties and Truckee are making it clear they aren’t allowing STR rentals to nonessential personnel, Sugal and others’ goal has shifted to creating a real system to hold those not complying accountable.

“I can tell you as someone who has a short-term rental up here, if they were to tell me that I would permanently lose my STR permit, that I would never be able to rent again if I got caught renting right now to someone who’s a nonessential worker … that would be a no brainer for me: I would immediately take it off [the market].” 

Truckee’s Loux said that although no enforcement was on the table as of Tuesday, new directives and clarifications are coming in every day, multiple times a day. The fact that a local order now limits STRs’ commercial business was a big hurdle to overcome.

“Lots and lots and lots of people were saying we should [limit STRs],” he said. “We were searching for our authority to do that and we got it today through the county.”

SNEAKY SYMPTOMS: Because COVID-19 symptoms may not appear for up to two weeks after exposure, leaders across the country encourage self-isolation. Recreating in nature is permissible, though people should maintain at least a 6-foot distance from those not in their household. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

STRs not in compliance can be reported to Nevada County at (833) 342-5211; or to Placer County at (530) 448-8003 or online. The Nevada County order will remain until rescinded by the health officer; the Placer County directive is in place until 11:59 p.m. on April 10, unless extended, rescinded, superseded, or amended by the health officer. 

Gustafson told Moonshine Ink in an email that the interpretation that STRs do not count as essential under the governor’s order means that the sheriff’s department can issue misdemeanor citations for noncompliant STR property owners. She has also expressed concerns about STR platforms like Airbnb and VRBO to the governor’s office, Sen. Dianne Feistein’s office, and Rep. Tom McClintock’s office.

Though Gustafson said she expects widespread compliance, she did add that reasonable judgement will need to be applied in some situations, and provided a few examples:

“We did receive a call from the Community House yesterday — sometimes they use short-term rentals for safe haven[s] for individuals and families escaping domestic violence,” Gustafson wrote. “I received an email from a[n] STR owner who had rented to an individual who was in town to assist their 88-year-old mother who is a verified local resident. I also received an email from a[n] STR owner who was renting to a local family that needed to move because they had closed escrow selling their home.”

Circumstances like these, she explained, might not seem essential, but are worthy of additional considerations.

“I am very optimistic that we will see a reduction in unnecessary use, a reduction in the negative dialogue, and focus our attention on taking care of ourselves and our loved ones,” Gustafson finished. “We need to work together to fight the real enemy — the virus.”

Much of the commentary inspired by Sugal’s petition discussed locals’ hopes that second homeowners also stay in their primary residences to minimize the strain on Tahoe/Truckee’s hospitals and infrastructure. But she doesn’t think that’s enforceable due to private property rights. 

“What I’m asking is that they regulate what they can regulate, which is commercial … short-term rentals,” she said. “It’s kind of a low-hanging fruit here.” 

Sugal, who as a member of the vacation rental community herself is taking a significant economic hit by not marketing her place, feels strongly that it’s “also the responsibility of people who are down the hill coming up here, to not come up here … we’re not saying we don’t want them, we’re saying we don’t want them here right now,” she told Moonshine. “If you walk up and down my street every house that is available as a short-term rental is rented.