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Kiawah, Edisto, Isle of Palms halt short-term rentals as beach towns clamp down on coronavirus

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Homes on Kiawah (copy)

Luxury homes sales on Kiawah Island. File/Patrick O'Brien/KIRE

Kiawah Island, Edisto Beach and Isle of Palms are the latest coastal towns to limit short-term rentals, with their leaders saying concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus required a limit on new visitors to the communities. 

Kiawah Island put a freeze on all new short-term rentals until April 15, but the move does not affect people who had booked a stay in the 21-day period before the unanimous Wednesday vote by Town Council.

Edisto Beach and Isle of Palms are stopping new check-ins from Thursday morning until the end of April, whether or not they were booked before the towns' votes. Anyone in the midst of a visit to those two towns can stay to the end of their reservation.

The towns follow a similar move on Tuesday by Folly Beach, which barred check-ins until April 30. 

"There is so much concern in the community about ... the potential exposure that new renters coming into the island bring, what we’re trying to do is bring a cap," said Kiawah Mayor Craig Weaver. 

Folly Beach also announced Wednesday it would expand the time it would screen people coming onto the island to 24 hours a day; previously, the town had only turned away non-residents during daylight hours, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

City Administrator Spencer Wetmore said council members had considered an around-the-clock approach to screening before, but "the tipping point" was the fact that some property owners were trying to sneak in renters past 8 p.m.

Likewise, Edisto Beach implemented a 24-hour checkpoint as it passed its ordinance barring rentals. Mayor Jane Darby said the small beach town's population is particularly vulnerable, with an average age over 70, and that rental owners had been inundated by calls from people in other states with orders to stay at home. 

"Tourism strains our vital services like the fire department, the police department," Darby said. "If they are exposed or we lose some of them (to illness), we cannot provide vital services, for instance if someone has a heart attack."

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On Kiawah, Weaver said that only about 10 percent of the town's more than 1,300 properties were currently occupied by temporary renters. Kiawah's Island Golf Resort's flagship hotel, the Sanctuary, had already decided to shutter its 225 rooms until April 6. 

On Isle of Palms, the town council was unanimous in barring short term rentals, which they did after a doctor from the Medical University of South Carolina called in to give advice on the best public health measures to stop the spread of the contagion.

IOP Councilwoman Susan Hill Smith said "we play a role in discouraging travel right now," and said that's a message communities across the country should be broadcasting to staunch the spread of the virus. 

Beach towns have become a focus of public health guidance to stop the spread of COVID-19, in part because it has been challenging in some places to stop people from congregating closely on the sand.

The new and highly contagious type of coronavirus, which causes breathing issues, is spread by respiratory droplets. People must stay six feet apart to avoid exposure from an infected person, who may or may not have obvious symptoms. People who do develop symptoms may not show them for up to 14 days after infection. 

As a result, Sullivan's Island, Folly and Isle of Palms had already limited island access by non-residents to stop the public from flooding the beaches. Kiawah, by contrast, was already a gated resort with some limitations. The popular Charleston County beach park there has already closed, but the town is still allowing contractors and the friends and family of property owners through the gates. 

Kiawah Councilman Klaus Said said property owners need to take responsibility for the behavior of their guests as the pandemic unfolds, particularly if they're coming from places where there are more known cases of the virus.

"My daughter came from New York four weeks ago," he said. "If she came today, I promise you she would be in the house for two weeks, and she would go nowhere."

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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