SAUGATUCK — With warmer temperatures and the arrival of spring come the beginnings of the tourist season in lakeshore communities like Saugatuck and Douglas.
“If the sun is shining, tourism season has started,” said Saugatuck city manager Kirk Harrier.
But no tourists are allowed, at least for the next several weeks, under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s newest stay-at-home order, which extended the previous order through the end of April and added new restrictions.
The governor’s new order explicitly bars short-term rentals such as Airbnbs from operating during the shutdown and from advertising vacation properties, unless they are housing a medical worker or volunteer involving in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
Even before the governor’s newest order, city officials in Saugatuck and Douglas were already making it clear that operating or using vacation rentals was a violation of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.
The city of Saugatuck sent an email to short-term rental property owners last week and published a public notice on its website explaining vacation lodging and vacation short-term rentals are not allowed.
Nearby Douglas issued a similarly-worded notice Wednesday, April 8, to its residents.
“The City of Saugatuck is reminding the general public, property owners and property managers in the City that vacation lodging or short-term vacation rentals DO NOT qualify as essential businesses under the Executive Order,” reads the notice, signed by Harrier and Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker.
The city of Saugatuck has nearly 200 short-term rental properties, according to the city’s zoning administrator Cindy Osman.
While Saugatuck’s city administration hasn’t had any complaints about vacationers coming to stay in short-term rentals, Harrier said the city wanted to prevent what’s happened in South Haven, another lakeshore tourist community, where police have reportedly had to break up parties and gatherings.
At the time, city officials in Douglas and Saugatuck were also explaining the restrictions did not apply to people visiting their second homes in the Saugatuck area.
But that changed with Thursday’s stay-at-home extension, which now bars people from traveling between two residences in the state, beginning Saturday, April 11.
Harrier said the Saugatuck city administration has received some complaints from residents worried about people traveling to the city from other parts of the state or from out-of-state to stay in their second homes.
The governor’s order now prohibits in-state travel between two homes, but it does not prohibit residents traveling from out-of-state to a residence in Michigan, nor does it prohibit residents traveling from Michigan to a residence out-of-state.
However, vacation travel as a whole is not allowed under the new order.
Douglas’s mayor, Pat Lion, owns and operates the Rosemont Inn in Douglas along with her family. In an email, she said she had closed the inn weeks ago but has made the inn available to house medical workers if the need arises.
“It is certainly a hardship for the business however the governor has made it mandatory for good reason,” Lion said.
Hotels and motels have been deemed essential businesses by the state although many, including at least six hotels in Holland, have been forced to close due to low occupancy rates.
Providing lodging to economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals or individuals who need assistance as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is permitted under the order.
Whitmer’s ban on short-term rentals also makes an exception for medical workers and volunteers.
The key, for Harrier, is that as much as it runs counter to the city’s usual welcoming ethos, people should not be coming to Saugatuck for leisure right now.
Violations can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor and punished with a $500 criminal fine and up to a $1,000 civil fine.
On top of these restrictions, the tourism industry in the greater Holland area is assessing how to move forward amid the loss of the Tulip Time festival this year, a major tourist draw.
Not knowing how long public health restrictions will remain in place makes it difficult for the hospitality industry to plan ahead.
“I think if you ask any lakeshore community that has a tourism economy base, they’re going to say yeah, this is going to impact our lodging, restaurants and more,” Harrier said.
— Contact reporter Carolyn Muyskens at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @cjmuyskens.