You Can’t Go Anywhere, but Ads Still Promise Retreats

You Can’t Go Anywhere, but Ads Still Promise Retreats

Flee to a $60,000 lakefront getaway in Minnesota.

Ride out the coronavirus this summer in Southampton for $275,000.

Or, for the same amount, buy a cabin in the Ozarks.

These are among the properties for sale and for rent that have popped up around the country, encouraging people to leave cities and states hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and head to less populated areas. The ads, many of them on sites like Craigslist and Airbnb, promise sweeping vistas, backyard watering holes and ample spaces in places purporting to be safer from the coronavirus.

One ad for 120 wooded acres in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas claimed that the area “has ZERO cases of Covid-19” as of April 3.

Governors and municipal leaders around the country have put restrictions on short-term rentals for fear they will attract people who are unknowingly carrying the virus. Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has forbidden Airbnb and other short-term rentals from booking reservations after officials in places like the Poconos complained about advertisements enticing people from New Jersey and New York to come.

In New Jersey, Gov. Philip D. Murphy urged people with second homes at the shore to stay away. On April 4, he issued an order that gave municipalities more freedom to put restrictions on online rental sites.

And in Whitefish, Mont., a resort town overlooking the Rocky Mountains, Mayor John Muhlfeld announced on April 5 that hotels, motels and other lodgings would be prohibited from accepting reservations for nonessential travel through the end of the month.

“There is concrete evidence that communities like Whitefish are especially vulnerable when those fleeing hot spot urban areas come here for refuge and unknowingly bring the virus with them,” Mr. Muhlfeld said. He noted the outbreak of coronavirus in Sun Valley, Idaho, a celebrity destination where the health care system became overwhelmed after throngs of wealthy tourists brought the illness with them in early March.

“This is not the time to come to Whitefish,” he said.

And even absent government decrees, residents in isolated areas have aggressively spoken out against people arriving from densely populated cities and towns, for fear that they would bring the virus with them.

Airbnb hosts were among the first to feel the financial pain wrought by the pandemic, as travel all but shut down around the globe. Many are individual homeowners, who have been told by the company to check local restrictions before booking tenants. A lot of hosts are now booking homes for eligible essential workers at free or subsidized rates, the company said in a statement.

“Airbnb is working with local governments in real time to both address these orders and ensure short-term and longer-term rentals are an available resource for front-line responders and those sheltering in place during this crisis,” said Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy for Airbnb.

Craigslist did not respond to requests for comment.

Not everyone is saying no to newcomers.

John Bigart III had been trying to sell his three-bedroom cabin in Montana for a few weeks when the virus began to take hold in New York and New Jersey. This month, he posted an ad for it on Craigslist, offering it for $195,000 and marketing it as an “off grid” getaway available “just in time for this whole coronavirus mess.”

Mr. Bigart, 48, who is also the mayor of Alberton, Mont., said he thought the post would be a good opportunity to attract potential buyers who in the past might not have considered buying property in rural Montana.

“I kind of thought that if I was in that position, and I was in a big city right now, what would be enticing to me?” he said. “And what would make me feel a little safer and allow me to get out of this box that I’m in?”

Since he posted the ad, he has received inquiries from people in New York, Nashville, Oregon, Wyoming and even cities in Montana.

But with warnings not to fly, prospective buyers have been reluctant to come view it, Mr. Bigart said.

He said that unlike in Whitefish, which is 133 miles from his desolate property, there has not been local pushback to his ad.

“I don’t think Montanans are sitting around saying, ‘Oh crap, we don’t want people from out of state invading us,’” he said.

Posts have popped up even in states with orders intended to stop short-term rentals. Three days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan prohibited nonessential travel within the state, an advertiser in the Upper Peninsula offered a $20,000 monthly rental for a cabin on the lake for those who “want to escape New York.”

“You can live in my house and not be bothered by anyone during this time, yet you are close to medical facilities and civilization,” the ad read.

Blake Rieboldt, chief of police in nearby Marquette, said advertising a cabin to out-of-staters flouted the order. It was also a confounding post, he said, given that the region just saw two feet of snow and anyone who came to the area could be stranded and in danger if they got sick.

“You’d be better off renting a penthouse in Manhattan and sitting up there and self-quarantining for a while,” Mr. Rieboldt said, “versus packing people up and traveling to a log cabin with a bunch of snow. Like, a lot of snow.”

There is no absolutely responsible way to escape the pandemic, experts say. Even those who move and quarantine for 14 days run the risk of getting sick or infecting others.

“You will spread it to the communities to which you travel, and the various places you stop in between,” said Jeff Moriarty, a philosophy professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and the director of its Center for Business Ethics. “If you are in a remote and hard to reach area, you risk putting others’ lives at risk, not just your own.”

He added: “Getting away from it all may seem attractive, but based on everything we know now, it isn’t justified.”

Some of the ads on Craigslist are coy, offering escape without outright mentioning the virus.

“Escape to a secluded destination to ride out the storm” read one ad for a one-bedroom cottage in Vermont for $1,350.

Others are less subtle.

“WE OFFER NOW A SPECIAL COVID-19 DISCOUNTED RATE FOR ANY 4 WEEKS MINIMUM RENTALS,” screamed one ad on Craigslist for a $9,900 rental in Sound Beach, N.Y., on Long Island.

Keith Byman, who owns Brentwood Estate in Minnesota, posted an ad on Craigslist recently offering a luxury lakeside property in Douglas County for $60,000 a month.

“We thought maybe there is someone in an area hard hit by the coronavirus who wants to escape,” he said. “If we aren’t able to rent out Brentwood on a weekly basis, maybe there would be somebody who would want to stay there the whole summer, depending on how long this pandemic lasts.”

The property, four houses with a combined 19 bedrooms and 18 bathrooms, is also for sale for $5.9 million.

“Survive the next coronavirus pandemic at your own little slice of ‘Heaven on Earth’,” read an ad for one of the resorts on Zillow.

Mr. Byman said that two serious buyers had already responded to the Zillow ad, and that he believed the isolated nature of his property made it safer.

“Well, Brentwood is so super secluded that when people come and stay for a week, they never leave the property,” he said.

He added: “I think this whole pandemic is making people rethink life strategies.”

At the Jersey Shore, some property managers are still trying to attract tenants for the summer, when they hope the pandemic has subsided enough to loosen restrictions.

“Beaches may close,” read one post for a $1,500 a week, four-bedroom house near beaches in Monmouth County. “You can still enjoy your summer and warm weather in health risk free, very private backyard.”

The real estate broker in Sea Girt who is handling that property said he has had only one showing so far. By now, properties near or at the shore would ordinarily have been nearly sold out for the summer, he said.

“No one knows when this is going to end,” said the broker, who is not allowed to speak without permission from his supervisor. “People call, but they don’t commit. It’s the uncertainty.”

Mr. Bigart, in Montana, said if he did not sell his property now, he was hopeful that after the worst of the pandemic was over there would still be people interested in buying a retreat far from the crowds.

The pandemic “has some people thinking about what life would be like in an environment where you’re not so dependent on everything around you,” he said. “Maybe when the dust settles, they’ll remember what took place and want to settle out here.”


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