What next if a guest contracts Covid-19 in your short-term rental?

Worldwide: The coronavirus pandemic represents uncharted waters for the hospitality industry in more ways than one, but particularly for travel lawyers who could come face to face with a number of liability lawsuits if a guest hypothetically believes they contracted Covid-19 in one’s vacation rental.

Imagine the thought: a guest contracting Covid-19 in your short-term rental is enough to strike fear into hospitality hearts. Operators must ensure they are prepared for the worst-case scenario as no one knows when they will one day be faced with that reality.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week announced the slight relaxation of the two-metre rule to a “one-metre-plus rule”, paving the way for B&B and hotel owners to accept bookings again from 4 July.

While the reopening of hospitality, though, is a welcome relief to many businesses who had been left in a perilous financial position due to the sharp drop in bookings, the travel sector is still in a worryingly vulnerable state, as companies continue heavy redundancy rounds and furloughs. Operators will be cautious about the reopening despite the necessity to keep their businesses running but fears remain that this easing has come too early, and it could potentially trigger a rise in legal cases against those who do not have sufficient health and safety procedures in place.

Cleaning will take on a renewed focus in short-term rentals long ater this pandemic has passed, and it is also a watershed moment for terms such as sanitisation and disinfection popping up in our daily lexicon. Businesses will be under intense pressure and scrutiny to reassure travellers that such procedures are up to scratch as these are likely to be significant drivers in generating bookings, and ultimately revenue.

Companies in the short-term rental space have been busy launching cleaning and sanitisation protocols, certifications and screenings to reassure their guests ahead of the much-anticipated travel rebound this summer [see Maison Privee, Quality Cottages, VRScheduler, VRMA and VRHP, Booking.com and Properly, CuddlyNest].

The unprecedented circumstances we are currently in will throw up a number of legal minefields that companies will be keen to avoid, especially as many may not be afford to pay potential legal fees having been starved of booking revenue over the past few months.

How can you convince guests that your rental properties are Covid-free and safe?

A recent report by Skift quoted travel lawyers who said it was “only a matter of when, not if” a wave of litigation unfurls against property owners from plaintiffs claiming they were exposed to the virus at a commercial property like a hotel, but what if a guest claims they contracted Covid-19 while staying in your vacation rental?

The issue with the short-term rental sector is that it is still a highly fragmented industry, where there may be homeowners, property owners and booking platforms to consider in all this. Ultimately the question would centre around where the liability would lie if a guest claimed they had been exposed to the coronavirus while staying in a private property.

Airbnb recently published an extensive set of guidelines for hosts to follow when accepting bookings, including leaving 72 hours between guests and deep cleaning every single part of the property they have come into contact with.

Hosts who cannot commit to the intense cleaning routine should opt in to a 72-hour “booking buffer” where they are instructed leave the property vacant. Booking buffers aim to reduce the risk of potential exposure to the coronavirus, which can remain in the air or on surfaces for several hours or even days.

However, leaving a property vacant is only advised rather than mandatory: it is up to individual property owners or managers to make an informed, professional judgement on booking buffers depending on their cleaning and sanitisation strategy, to maintain the safety of guests.

TravelNest VP of marketing, Cameron Boal, said: “In the post-coronavirus world, owners and guests will have new expectations about vacation rental cleaning standards. Owners should be prepared to share their changeover process and list of cleaning procedures to give guests peace of mind.”

Vacation rental software company Lodgify has recommended the following standard cleaning procedures that all homeowners or property managers should be carrying out to ensure guest safety,

  • Teams should wash their own hands before and after starting each clean, following the recommended government guidelines for hand-washing, using soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Cleaners should wear disposable gloves, which should be thrown away after use.
  • Property owners must be able to distinguish between cleaning and disinfecting to know which recommended products to use. Cleaning removes visible dirt and dust, whereas disinfection seeks to remove germs by using chemical products such as household bleach, alcohol solution and disinfectant. Which? provides a guide that explains which cleaning products are most effective in combating the spread of the coronavirus.
  • High-touch surfaces, such as door handles, light switches and horizontal surfaces, should be wiped down using recommended cleaners as frequently and as thoroughly as possible. In the bathroom, this would refer to taps, bath and shower areas, in the kitchen, you have fridges, ovens, kettles, toasters, chairs and tables to consider, while in the living room, devices such as buttons and TV remotes require extra thought, as well as furnishings such as cushions and rugs.
  • Switching to disposable cleaning cloths and paper towels is strongly advised, as well as mops to clean floors, firstly with detergent and then a second one for rinsing purposes.
  • Linens need to be washed at the highest recommended heat setting, while reusable washcloths and dusters should also be washed at a high temperature after each use.

Current UK guidelines allow for two households to take part in multiple family holidays in rental cottages, provided that they maintain social distancing throughout their stay.

As businesses seek to encourage guests to stay in their holiday let properties to make up for their financial black hole from recent months, Philip Schofield from specialist holiday home, holiday let and cottage insurance provider, Schofields Holiday Home Insurance, provided some tips to attract travellers or staycationers towards holiday lets over hotels.

  • Attract local tourists: With staycations becoming a growing trend this summer due to increased traveller angst and restrictions on overseas travel, it is the ideal opportunity to be encouraging local tourists to book with you. Businesses will have to take into account minimum / maximum stay policies and adapt to market demands, including preparing for surges in bookings and shortened booking windows before check-ins.
  • Promote the benefits of a holiday rental over a hotel: Guests will be more mindful than ever about the importance of having their own private space to relax and enjoy their holidays in a safe environment. Operators should be highlighting the services and amenities as part of their offering and underlining the fact that guests will not have to congregate with staff or other guests in high-traffic communal areas as they may have to in a traditional hotel.

What if a guest claims to have contracted Covid-19 in your rental?

Any guest in a short-term rental should not arrive if they have a temperature, feel unwell or display any other Covid-19 related symptoms. But what happens if they develop symptoms whilst in your holiday let? Can they self-isolate in your property or should they go home?

UK Government guidelines state: “If a guest is displaying signs of the Covid-19 virus while staying in overnight accommodation for a permitted reason, they should inform the accommodation provider, immediately self-isolate where they are to minimise any risk of transmission, and request a test.

“If they are confirmed to have Covid-19, they should return home if they reasonably can. They should use private transport but only drive themselves if they can do so safely.

“If a guest cannot reasonably return home [for example because they are not well enough to travel or do not have the means to arrange transport], their circumstances should be discussed with an appropriate health care professional and, if necessary, the local authority.

“Guests should follow government guidance on dealing with possible or confirmed coronavirus [Covid-19] infection. Once the guest [and if appropriate their family] has finished the required self-isolation period and is no longer symptomatic, they should return to their main residence and continue to follow the government guidance on self-isolation, household isolation and social distancing,” it added.

Dev Desai, Partner at London-based Watson Farley & Williams LLP, who heads up the property dispute resolution service at the firm, said that while the short-term rental sector would be keen to get back to business following a barren period for bookings, businesses wanted to know how they could do it in a safe, legal way and avoid potential lawsuits.

At the heart of the matter, Desai said, hosts and guests would have to be mindful of risk management, and he expressed his concern that more “dilettante” hosts, as opposed to those seeking to professionalise the industry, would be caught out by not having the right steps in place in case they are brought to court.

During this pandemic, operators with five or more employees are required to have a full written risk assessment on their properties, outlining the steps they have made to ensure the safety of guests during their stay there.

The first question to ask if a guest contracted Covid-19 during their stay is: how can the occupant prove that they were infected inside the holiday rental? Unless there is a very vigorous track and trace system, Desai said, you cannot know where a guest was exposed to the contaminant and that is where a host must show evidential proof to support their no-liability defence.

If a host can reasonably prove that they had taken all possible procedures to guarantee a guests’s safety, including diligently identifying all possible sources of contamination from utensils to furnishings and door handles, providing documental evidence such as cleaning criteria checklists for cleaners and ensuring staff wear gloves or PPE [personal protective equipment] at all times, their case will be significantly stronger for having no liability than if they were not able to prove it.

If the guest, though, is able to prove that the owner or host did not reasonably do enough to prevent the contamination and that they themselves took all reasonable care, it will result in a clash to decide who is liable. An argument based around witness statements and documented evidence will be significantly stronger for either the plaintiff or the defendant.

Meanwhile, in April, short-term rental insurance company GUARDHOG launched its new trust and verification platform, SUPERHOG, which independently verifies all parties in the short-term rental sector, providing peace of mind that a person, property or company are who / what they claim to be.

Its co-founder, Andrew Boldt, said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s confirmation that the domestic tourism market was open again for business with effect from 4 July had triggered “a frenzy of excitement”. He added that for accommodation owners, businesses and Airbnb hosts, it had “given them hope for an end to the bleakest revenue patch the sector has ever known and they can start to plan for the future, albeit with a new set of logistical challenges resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, he also shared his advice for hosts and owners to both minimise the risk of spreading the virus and protect themselves from liability in the event of a guest making a coronavirus-related claim against them.

Boldt said:

  • “It has never been more important than now to be able to demonstrate that you manage your property [or properties] in a professional way, and top of everyone’s checklist will be your cleaning regime. Do not scrimp and save here. Definitely use recognised professionals and ensure that they have built in a specific approach to Covid-19; both in how they handle themselves and how they clean your property. If you use a managing agent, worth clarifying with them who is ultimately responsible for the hygiene turnaround, as you do not want it to be out of your control, yet your neck is on the line!
  • “Don’t overbook! Whilst it will be tempting to squeeze every last drop out of this shortened summer season, remember it is a long game. Your short- and long-term future bookings [as well as your wallet] may be at risk if you have a Covid-19 issue at your property, so definitely enforce stricter than usual check-in /out protocol and timings and, if possible [appreciate this may be difficult], try to have short gaps between bookings. You need to take every step you can to avoid any crossing of paths between guests, and do not put yourself under too much pressure with turnaround times.
  • “Protect yourself” – a few areas to think about here.
  • “Given the circumstances there are likely to be large numbers of first time “cottage bookers”; the difficulty of overseas travel means most people will be “staycationing” rather than jumping in a plane. So do you research before you accept a guest, do not auto-accept everything, and make sure there is always a deposit in place
  • “Financial protection – remember that as a host you are responsible for ensuring that your property is fit for purpose and safe to stay in. There has not yet been a chance for this to be tested through the courts, but if you are found not to have taken appropriate steps in this regard, particularly in relation to the spread of Covid-19, you could be held responsible for the results of any accident or illness caused by the property. Insurance of a property should be a given, but just as important is the ability for you to demonstrate a professional approach to the maintenance, cleaning  and suitability of a property. Taking these sensible steps and using SUPERHOG to certify that you have will protect you for up to £1 million in such circumstances.”

What if you yourself contract Covid-19 in a short-term rental?

Successfully winning a coronavirus claim against a property manager of a short-term rental will be more complicated than with previous health threats. Moreover, how can the guest be sure that they were exposed to the virus in your property? They may have never left the property during their stay but who is to say they did not come into contact with it before, in their home or office, drinking or eating establishment, or even on their journey through an airport, aeroplane or on public transport?

These are all questions that will help to form the defence of a property owner or manager against whom a claim has been brought.

Like the hosts and managers themselves, the guest has their own individual responsibility of care for themselves and their fellow travellers. Did they wash their hands correctly or take every precaution possible to avoid this contamination?

It is widely acknowledged that the majority of the people who have contracted coronavirus, in the UK at least, have gone outside of their main residences to be unintentionally exposed to the virus.

Simply by going to stay in a short-term rental means that travellers are not self-isolating at home, and until 4 July at least in the UK, that would be deemed “non-essential travel”. If the matter were to result in a court case, it would beg the question why the traveller was self-isolating in a rental in any case, and may lead to further questions about the credibility of their claim.

However, if a guest can reasonably prove that they took all necessary precautions to avoid exposure to the virus, and the property manager or owner is unable to provide documentary evidence of their own precautions, a judge may be more inclined to rule in the plaintiff’s favour.

In the meantime, SUPERHOG co-founder Boldt said that for many guests who have not left their home since mid-March, it felt like “a spell has been broken and rumours of massive booking levels for UK cottages tell of our desperation to be somewhere other than home”.

He added: “Suggestions are that supply levels will be under pressure over the summer holiday period, particularly demand for cottages given the desire for families to have their ‘own front door’, rather than sharing facilities and being surrounded by hotel staff and strangers.”

Taking this into account, he shared some notes of caution and tips for guests in the short-term rental sector if they are worried about contracting Covid-19 in their short-term rental.

Boldt said:

  • “Given everything that has happened over the last few months, how much do you really know about your hosts or the property owners / managers? Amidst the likely scramble for properties around the UK, it is really worth doing that extra bit of due diligence to check they are who they say they are. Fraudsters will definitely be looking for opportunities.
  • “The same goes for the property; look for independent confirmation that the property matches the listing you have seen online, and above all, ask the owners to confirm that the property undergoes appropriate professional cleaning throughout between bookings.
  • “Protect yourself – remember that even though you might not be leaving the country, you are still going on holiday and it is appropriate to buy travel insurance, even though Covid-19 covers may be heavily restricted in the current environment. SUPERHOG membership can help with alternative accommodation costs if a hosts cancels a booking as they cannot vacate the property for your booking due to [for example] a covid-19 diagnosis.”

Whatever happens post-Covid, the landscape of the short-term rental landscape will be altered significantly by the pandemic.

If lawsuits are pursued against hosts, property managers or owners, lawyers in the UK will be bring up key legislation to decide on who has the most liability for a coronavirus-related infection. These are:

  • Public Health [Control of Disease] Act 1984 and Health Protection [Coronavirus Restrictions][England regulations 2020]
  • Statutory liability – Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, which sets out the framework of risk assessments
  • Cautious liability, whereby hosts have a duty of care to any visitors of premises they control
  • Contractual liability through booking platforms or websites – as soon as a stay is booked, a contract is produced between aa host and a guest

Desai also stated his belief that the renewed focus on cleaning and sanitisation could result in future travellers verging away from more “opulent, kitted-out, luxury spaces”, in favour of more “minimalist” rental accommodation with fewer amenities or touch points where they could be contaminated.

While it is inevitable that consumers will still have their eye on the luxury segment for a short-term break, those more cautious travellers will soon be rethinking their service priorities, including honing in on remote check-ins and contactless technology where they are less likely to come into contact with a contaminant.

The same precautions will remain for some time: face coverings, hand sanitisers, surface disinfectants and wipes will be required long after Covid-19 has passed. It is not out of the question that Covid-20 or 21, or even SARS-4 could be the next major outbreak facing us one day and for that, we must all be more mindful of health and safety within short-term rentals.

And yet, for all the cleaning, disinfection, sanitisation and face covering provisions, the chance of eliminating all of the risks posed by the coronavirus risks will be difficult. Social distancing and self-isolating cannot go on forever.

As Elizabeth Marder, chair of communications and outreach for the not-for-profit International Society of Exposure Science, puts it: “You may need a vacation, but Covid-19 never takes one.”