By Brian Sherman, The Island Eye News Managing Editor
Forced to choose between its city’s economic well-being and the health of its residents, the Isle of Palms City Council opted to put in place additional measures to help slay COVID-19, the biological beast that has already infected more than half a million people and claimed north of 23,000 lives worldwide.
At a special meeting March 25, the Council almost unanimously agreed to ban short-term rentals – stays of 29 days or less – until the end of April. Councilman Ryan Buckhannon, who owns rental property on the island, did not vote. Visitors who are already on the island will be able to complete their existing reservations.
The Council, which voted March 20 to restrict access to the island between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., took further action after receiving input from Dr. Edward O’Bryan, an emergency medicine physician at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“Dr. O’Bryan, one of the leading sources of information about the coronavirus, said 14 days is not enough,” according to Mayor Jimmy Carroll. “We needed to go beyond that 14-day period on the advice of medical professionals. That was beyond our expertise.”
He added that the ban on short-term rentals could be extended past the end of April.
“It all depends on what happens between now and then,” Carroll pointed out. “We’re watching it on a daily basis. This is scary. These are pretty drastic measures. There’s no doubt about it.”
Not everyone was happy about the Council’s decision. Mel Miles, owner of Exclusive Properties, which manages around 30 rental homes on Isle of Palms, was disappointed that the ban was extended into and past Easter weekend.
“I know they are under a ton of pressure from local residents. Everybody is scared to death of people coming down here from ‘hot spots’ like New York and New Jersey,” Miles said. “I understand it. I would not want to be in line in the grocery store with someone who might have the virus. But I wish we had less-extreme measures. It seems like it’s an overreaction. They are exceeding the recommendation of the president of the United States, who said certain regions of our country hopefully will be out of this and will be able to celebrate Easter with their families.”
“Easter is the biggest holiday for the island. We are booked solid. The whole island is booked solid. This will be a huge revenue loss for us,” he added. “We’ll have zero income for the whole month of April.”
Miles pointed out that the Council could have banned short-term rentals for a shorter period of time. He said most of the Easter holiday renters are families that have their groceries delivered and, for the most part, eat at home. He said when they do eat out, they usually order from local restaurants, another sector that will suffer financially from the ban.
“They could have done it for two weeks, then re-evaluated the situation,” Miles said.
Councilman Randy Bell, a New Jersey native himself, said keeping people who live in “hot” zones from visiting Isle of Palms is a prudent move for the community, from a health standpoint as well as financially.
“I can’t speak for the other Council members, but for the overall economy of the island, it’s better to attack the virus early and flatten the curve than to let it accelerate and see a longer-term impact,” he said. “Our responsibility is to the citizens and to their health.”
“There is no singular correct answer to this,” he added. “These are trying times. We’re going to have to see what the data and medical science tell us after the April 30 deadline.”
O’Bryan told Council members that many of the people who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the Lowcountry are travelers, and a good number of those came to the Carolina coast from the New York area. When asked by Councilman Jimmy Ward about the possibility of banning short-term rentals for only 14 or 15 days, O’Bryan responded that two weeks probably isn’t long enough to determine what effect the virus might have on the Lowcountry.
“You can do the 14-day with an automatic 14-day renewal. That might make sense. But it is going to be longer than two weeks,” he said.
Following the March 25 meeting, Carroll was convinced that the Council was acting in the best interest of the people of Isle of Palms.
“I feel horrible for every one of our rental companies, and the people who own houses are impacted as well. This is not something we did lightly,” he said. “But we did the right thing.”