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Enough scallops to go around

A lone snorkeler swims atop the surface of the water in this July 2017 photo, searching for scallops in the area between Homosassa and Crystal River. The shallow-water, grassy area is home to scores of scallops, attracting tens of thousands of visitors to the area annually. Owners of short-term vacation rentals are hoping this year is no different, even with COVID-19 restrictions.

Citrus County’s short-term vacation rentals may soon be back in business and Paula Black can’t wait.

“My phone’s ringing off the hook,” Paula Black, owner of Sunset Point on the Homosassa River, said. “Scallop season is our biggest money maker of the year.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s next phase of reopening includes short-term vacation rentals, but only after counties submit plans to the state on how that will be done safely to protect staff and guests from contracting or spreading COVID-19.

Citrus sent its plan to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, or DBPR, on Monday. It’s mirrored after ones sent Friday by a pair of Panhandle counties, and allows rentals from U.S. states with a COVID-19 case rate of less than 700 cases per 100,000.

DeSantis himself said he wouldn’t approve opening vacation rentals from hot spots, specifically mentioning New York.

County Administrator Randy Oliver told commissioners in a Monday morning email that the county plan will not have any chance of approval if it didn’t echo the governor’s concerns about hotspots.

“We think this is something they’ll accept,” Oliver said in an interview.

Along with encouraging rentals from in-state, the plan includes many of the coronavirus guidelines that have been in place for weeks, plus additional cleaning and providing copies of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to guests.

The Citrus County plan will be reviewed weekly and updated as needed, officials said.

As for enforcement, officials are counting on rental owners to follow the rules.

“All we can ask is that people cooperate, that people try to do the right thing,” Commissioner Jeff Kinnard said. “We’re trying to get things going as quickly as possible. These are reasonable restrictions to help people get their short-term vacation rentals going again, while still protecting the residents who live here.”

Black, who has four rentals on the Homosassa River, agreed that precautions are necessary to restart rentals.

Kinnard said he appreciates the state seeking plans from each county.

“I like the idea that they’re asking for county input on this,” he said. “Each of the counties are so different. We certainly have different short-term vacation rentals here than they have in Pinellas County, down on the beaches. There’s not a one-size fits all.”

John Pritcher, director of the Citrus County Visitors Bureau, said the limitation of guests to mainly in-state shouldn’t be an issue for most county vacation rentals as summer approaches. Scallop season is July 1-Sept. 24.

Citrus has an estimated 800 to 900 short-term vacation rentals, Pritcher said.

Pritcher said he hopes rental owners will do what's asked.

“These guidelines are in place to keep everybody safe,” he said. “We’re counting on folks who own these properties to follow the guidelines so everyone can be safe and business can resume.”

This story was corrected to remove references to DBPR not licensing short-term vacation rentals. The original story incorrectly stated the state does not regulate short-term rentals.

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.