The city of Portland notified the owners of nearly 800 short term rentals on Tuesday that they cannot accept bookings before the end of April.

That action followed a Portland City Council vote on Monday evening to ban those rentals as part of a stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic. Cape Elizabeth had already issued a similar prohibition, and other towns and cities could follow suit to discourage out-of-state visitors from coming to Maine. Other communities in states like New Jersey and California have barred vacation rentals in response to coronavirus as well.

“Please be aware that the City Council could choose to extend its emergency proclamation to extend further into the future,” Jessica Hanscombe, the licensing and housing safety manager in Portland, wrote in the notification email. “The City of Portland recommends that you not advertise or encourage the use or rental of short-term rentals throughout the City for vacation purposes until this emergency is over.”

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said he’s consulting with state and local health officials to determine whether a ban would be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus in the city, which enacted a stay-at-home order last week. One question he’s weighing is whether the city also should ban hotel stays if it bans short term rentals.

“I definitely like to see what our neighbors are doing in situations like this,” Morelli said Tuesday. “I also like to hear from experts in the field so it’s not just something I’m coming up with. We’re certainly not afraid to take action. I just want to make sure the experts agree and think it will be effective in helping to stop the spread of the virus.”

Some city councilors in Portland raised the same question about hotels at Monday evening’s meeting, and the group asked staff to look into that possibility before their next meeting. Hotels and similar hospitality businesses are considered essential under the emergency orders issued by both the governor’s office and the city of Portland.

Jay York, who rents a private room in his Portland home on AirBnb, said extending the ban to others in the hospitality industry would only be appropriate and fair.

“They need to be sheltering in place, and they shouldn’t be going to AirBnbs,” said York, 63. “But they also shouldn’t be going to hotels, motels, inns.”

York said he earns nearly $30,000 from AirBnb rentals, and that revenue represents half his income. AirBnb is not fining hosts for cancellations and is allowing full refunds in light of coronavirus, but York said he probably won’t be able to recoup the income he will lose this year.

He said people would normally be reserving the room for summer visits right now. But fewer than 30 nights are booked for the season, and he anticipates that he will eventually need to cancel those as well. His last reservation was one month ago, but those guests never made their trip because of the coronavirus.

He had to cancel one April reservation because of the city’s order, but he expected that even the small number of summer reservations so far would need to be canceled as well.

“This thing that Portland just did by closing down AirBnbs is kind of a moot point,” he said. “It’s not affecting us because of what the city did. It’s affecting us because of what the pandemic is doing to the economy.”

People who are currently in a short-term rental in Portland have until April 6 to leave. Rentals will still be allowed for people who are experiencing homelessness, medical providers who are coming to Portland to join the coronavirus response and individuals who need a place to isolate away from their families.

Hanscombe said she had not heard any complaints in recent weeks about large groups or out-of-state visitors at AirBnbs, and she hadn’t yet heard from anyone who would need to kick out an existing visitor. But she did hear from a host who said a doctor has rented her unit while helping with the coronavirus response.

On Tuesday, Portland had not yet articulated a plan for enforcement. Hanscombe said a complaint would likely prompt her to call the owner and communicate the terms of the ban, but beyond that conversation, she wasn’t sure what would happen next. Violations of Portland’s stay-at-home order can be penalized with a $500 fine plus the cost of prosecution.

“Our first thing always is to educate people, and hopefully, they would comply,” Hanscombe said.

Portland currently has 777 registered units for short term rental. On the mainland, 246 units are owner-occupied, and 400 are not. Twenty-nine units fall into the tenant-occupied category, which means a renter can list their room or unit on AirBnb or another service at times with the landlord’s permission. The city does not differentiate short term rentals on the islands by the owner’s residency, and that category includes 102 units. Owners in Portland can have up to five registered units.

Hanscombe said she had received a few dozen responses from owners within the first hours of notification, and almost all were positive. Some have asked whether their registration fees will be refunded, and city officials said it is too early to know how Portland will handle that question.

“I would say about 90 percent of have been thank yous,” Hanscombe said. “ ‘This was a great decision,’ or ‘I have already canceled.’ We’ve had people who said they canceled through all of 2020 already.”

Maple Razsa, a professor at Colby College, rents his family’s Portland home on AirBnb when they are out of town. So they don’t have many bookings at the moment, but his family had already decided earlier this month that they wouldn’t be traveling or renting any time soon.

“The decision to ban short term rentals at this time seems like the only responsible thing to do,” he said.

He suggested that open rental units and hotel rooms could be used to house people who are vulnerable to the virus, such as those who are experiencing homelessness or who are in correctional facilities.

“Our tourism is obviously on hold for the foreseeable future,” said Razsa, 48. “It does offer us an opportunity to address this really urgent need with resources the city already has lying dormant right now.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.

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