Short-term rentals are still mostly banned across Ontario, but professional cottage rental agencies are concerned about people on online platforms, such as Airbnb, breaking the rules.

The province has heavily restricted short-term rentals as of April 4, only allowing them for people in need of housing during the COVID-19 emergency (though that restriction does not apply to hotels, motels or student residences). Despite the restriction, Airbnb is still allowing hosts to list in the province, with several local hosts continuing to do so in April and May.

All-Season Cottage Rentals owner J.T. Lowes has suspended his company’s listings during the pandemic. But he said he knows of at least one online rental that has continued while flouting the restriction and he believes there are more.

“It’s really frustrating to see,” Lowes said. “The professional agencies are doing their part and not allowing bookings. It’s annoying to see other people aren’t. “I don’t think it’s very widespread. It’s probably a small number of people that are still renting, but it’s definitely going.”

Airbnb said it updated its platform to advise guests to check local travel restrictions, which they see before booking. It said it has communicated with hosts to check local orders as well. The platform has also prohibited listing titles that reference pandemic terms, to prevent marketing around escaping from COVID-19.

“Leisure travel should not occur right now, and we have encouraged our host and guest community to follow all restrictions,” a spokesperson said. “We’re glad the Province of Ontario recognizes the many situations where short-term rentals remain an available resource during this crisis, including for frontline responders, other workers requiring isolation and those sheltering in place during this crisis.”

But leaving the onus on owners to find and follow the rules is an issue, Lowes said.

“Unfortunately, owners are not always up-to-speed on current rules and regulations.”

The issue has also garnered County attention. Council voted May 26 to direct the warden to write a letter to the province asking for clarification on when short-term rentals and cottage resorts are allowed to open and encourage a level playing field for all levels of accommodation. It will also be raised at the Eastern Ontario Warden’s Caucus.

“I’m not prepared to watch our resorts struggle and possibly fail when private cottage rentals are in full swing,” Coun. Carol Moffatt said. “There are many, many people visiting Haliburton County through private cottage rentals that are not supposed to be open.”

Cottage Care Rentals, another professional agency which has stopped listing, also expressed concerns.

“It would be a shame to hear that landlords using Airbnb would put our community at risk,” owner Don Critchley said.

Lowes said he is concerned that rogue renters could further increase vocal opposition against the sector.

“The vast majority of owners are responsible and following the rules, but their (Airbnb’s) system allows for some of those bad apples,” he said.

Although Airbnb did not address a request for local booking data during the pandemic, many Haliburton-area hosts on their site have halted listings while the restriction is up.

OPP Sgt. Jason Folz said Airbnb is not mandated to close. He said OPP is enforcing orders surrounding gatherings of more than five people and specific businesses opening in contravention of the order.

Warden Liz Danielsen questioned whether OPP were taking as strong a position as they should be, but said the lack of clarity on some of the emergency orders is an issue.

“Unless they can get clarity, they seem not to desire to act on them,” Danielsen said. “To me, that’s our only avenue of any kind of enforcement.”

Lowes said it is still too soon to have rentals going on. But he thinks they could possibly open by the start of July, with restrictions.

“For us to recover and the economic recovery to begin, I think it would be beneficial to allow rentals under certain circumstances,” he said.

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