By Stefanie Jackson – The Cape Charles town council rescinded an ordinance last Thursday that had temporarily closed short-term rentals in an attempt to discourage visitors from coming to town and potentially spreading COVID-19.
The decision was made the day before Northampton County entered Phase One of Forward Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to gradually reopen the state as the coronavirus begins to show signs of decline.
The council voted to rescind the ordinance by a slim margin of 3-2, with some council members wanting to keep short-term rentals closed for health and safety reasons, and others wanting to prepare for arrivals that they deemed inevitable.
Councilwoman Tammy Holloway said, “They’re coming no matter what.” The only way to keep visitors out of Cape Charles would be to block Route 184 (Stone Road) and require drivers to show proof of residence, she said.
Town Manager John Hozey agreed. “The town has not been able to stop visitors to date. What we’ve done so far is slowed it down as best we could.”
“We tried to make the town as uninviting as possible to guests” by closing public facilities such as restrooms, parks, and the fishing pier, he said.
Public beaches were closed by executive order of the governor.
The town ordinance was difficult to enforce, Hozey added.
When rental owners were asked why they were welcoming guests during the temporary shutdown, they said the guests were family members or the rental was long-term, he said.
Councilman Steve Bennett did not agree with reopening short-term rentals because additional visitors would burden the Cape Charles medical center and the Food Lion, which hasn’t had toilet paper or disinfectant in stock for two months, he said.
He acknowledged that visitors will come, even though he was “not sure what they’re going to do when they get here,” considering the closure of public facilities.
“The reality is, is that the governor has opened our businesses up at 50%,” Holloway pointed out.
According to the governor’s executive order 61, nonessential retail stores will be permitted to operate at 50% capacity, and restaurants with outdoor seating will be allowed to offer 50% of their outdoor seating capacity to guests.
“I really feel strongly that it’s a public health issue that we don’t have one bathroom available,” and you know I’m against opening the one at the beach because that sends completely the wrong message,” Holloway said.
“We’re telling people to wash their hands and sanitize their hands and we have no environment (in) which to do that,” she continued.
Councilman Paul Grossman was concerned for the safety of the town staff members who would clean the bathroom and potentially be exposed to the coronavirus.
He agreed with opening a portable restroom behind the library after the town manager assured him staff would use all necessary personal protective equipment while cleaning the unit.
Councilman Andy Buchholz reminded his peers that nearby campgrounds will be allowed to reopen with restrictions.
“To be fair to the business owners, we’ve got to keep everybody equal. We’ve got to treat everybody the same. You can’t just pick and choose what’s going to open and close like that. That’s not fair,” he said.
Ordinance 20200416 was rescinded, effectively immediately, with Councilman Chris Bannon and Bennett voting “no.”
The beach will remain closed except for fishing and exercise, according to the governor’s orders.
In another matter, Holloway announced that Cape Charles Main Street received a $25,000 Northampton County Tourism Infrastructure grant, which will be used to purchase a portable restroom.
The trailer unit, which will feature running water and other amenities, will be placed near the municipal parking lot.
The grant was funded by transient occupancy taxes collected by Northampton’s hotels and other temporary accommodations.