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AirBnb; Alyssa Powell/Business Insider

As the pandemic continues, many are eagerly tracking signs for how a return to travel will be safe. With a vaccine for the novel coronavirus still potentially far off, many travelers are looking to be extra cautious, starting with the options that data suggest pose the least risk.

Prior to the pandemic, a certain type of traveler might have preferred Airbnbs or vacation rentals over hotels as their lodging choice. Their reasons varied but included more space to spread out (especially for groups or families) and residential-style comfort for longer stays.

These days, more travelers are eyeing this style of lodging for a new reason: when you book an entire home, it’s sheltered from interaction with staff and other guests. They also make for easy driveable getaways, such as a socially distanced road trip, given that experts say rental cars are largely safe to drive right now.

On the flip side, travelers might be more inclined than ever to scrutinize the details of this kind of rented accommodation. Others recently shared the space after all, using everything from kitchen utensils to bed linens.

To find a bottom line and answer the question, are Airbnb and vacation rentals safe during the coronavirus pandemic, and are they more or less safe than hotels, we reached out to experts for guidance. We spoke to an infectious disease doctor, a cleaning company owner with a new coronavirus division, a representative for Airbnb, as well as an Airbnb host’s take on the new policies.

Here’s what they say you should know to determine if your rented Airbnb is clean and safe, how to take extra precautions when you arrive, and under what conditions you might risk exposure. Hint: The feedback is encouraging.

In response to the crisis, in late April, Airbnb announced its Enhanced Cleaning Initiative, which includes what it bills as “the first overarching standardized protocol for cleaning and sanitization in the home-sharing industry.”

Informing the approach is the CDC’s published standards, input from former surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy, and companies like Ecolab that specialize in hospitality and medical hygiene. The program is now live for guests online, and gives hosts three different options for safely listing their homes.

The first option is the most rigorous, in which hosts undergo and enroll in a learning and certification program known as the Cleaning Protocol.

The protocol includes guidelines like the use of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves for hosts or cleaners, as well as only using disinfectants that have been approved by regulatory authorities. Additionally, listings in this program are required to maintain a 24-waiting period after a guest checks out before entering to clean a listing, as a way to mitigate any risk of airborne particles both for hosts and guests alike. In this scenario, the property couldn’t be flipped on the same day, a common practice pre-coronavirus.

After hosts enroll, guests will be able to identify these homes by a badge displayed on their listing page.

Disinfecting doorknob

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As a second measure, hosts that do not enroll in the new cleaning protocol because they can’t adapt to its stringent requirements may instead opt into a new feature called Booking Buffer.

Booking Buffer enforces a longer vacancy period between stays so guests may feel more secure knowing there has been no activity other than cleaning in the property during that time. Reservations will be automatically blocked during that timeframe, currently set at 72 hours.  

In this scenario, the listing remains vacant for 24 hours after the guest leaves. Then, a host or cleaning team can enter. But another 48 hours must pass before a guest may enter. These homes are identified by a badge that displays the home has been vacant for 72 hours in between guest stays.

“While both options were designed with an aim of preventing the spread of COVID-19, we encourage hosts to adopt and commit to the Cleaning Protocol,” the spokesperson explained. “If a host cannot access specific products, or is unable to commit to the Cleaning Protocol personally, or on behalf of outsourced cleaning providers, they have the alternative to opt into the Booking Buffer tool, while following local guidance and CDC recommendations.”

“Out of an abundance of caution, waiting periods are incorporated into both options in the Enhanced Clean Initiative, regardless of a previous guest’s health condition,” an Airbnb spokesperson explained.

The third option? Hosts can do neither of those things. But then their listings, void of such opt-in labels, may not be very appealing for guests to book, “so there is market pressure,” they said.

The Cleaning Protocol is free for hosts, who then determine their own nightly listing price and set a cleaning fee, in accordance with their expenses to clean and prepare their listing between guest stays. This cost is clearly shown to guests when they book a reservation at check-out, along with nightly price and any other applicable fee. These fees can range wildly from rental to rental. We broke down how to determine a home’s cleaning and fee policy, in full, here.

We found that hosts —not just guests — appreciate the new protocols in place to protect them and their tenants.

“Cleaning and sanitizing our Airbnb is now critical and I’m really glad we will have clear guidelines to follow and assist us for the health and safety of all involved, from hosts, to cleaners, and to guests,” says Clara Reeves, an Airbnb host in Pensacola, Florida.

“Surely we want to optimize for everyone’s health, and there are some factors we now recognize have an impact, like having a time buffer between guests, airing out and sanitizing the entire Airbnb, and not shaking the linens, plus having proper cleaning attire and equipment,” she explained.

Reeves says she expects the virus threat to stick around for a while, adding, “Just like we have hurricane preparedness here in Florida, we must have Covid-19 cleaning preparedness in this new world as well.”

Where — and how — should I take precautions in an Airbnb?

You may now feel particularly concerned about sharing aspects of an Airbnb that didn’t raise flags in the past, such as areas like the kitchen, bathrooms, and bed linens. But the good news is, experts say all of these concerns can be resolved with spot cleaning upon arrival. It will benefit your peace of mind if you’re worried, with little risk remaining.

“If you want to be safe, run utensils and dishware through the dishwasher when you get there and that should take care of that,” says Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo. You can do this as well for laundering bed linens and towels “so you have control of what you want to be washed and cleaned.”

On arrival, disinfect the flat surfaces — like kitchen countertops — he says. “The inanimate objects and surfaces are a lower risk than the people risk,” says Dr. Russo. “But those are the kinds of things you can do to minimize your risk.”

Also consider running a disinfecting wipe over phones, TV remotes, door handles, bathroom faucets, and toilet handles, Dr. Russo adds.

Disinfecting home

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John Marroni, owner and president of the disaster recovery company National Restoration, which now has a dedicated coronavirus arm, also suggests using your instincts as a guide to help determine whether your rental is adequately safe and sanitary when you arrive. “I would absolutely check all surface tops and make sure to look for dust,” he says. “If you see dust, then the chances of them thoroughly cleaning is questionable.”

In the end, it’s about your comfort level and your personal habits within the rental. But, “it always helps to go over everything yourself regardless, because it’s about protection and peace of mind,” he says. “As to which high-touch areas you go to first, that depends on the individual and which high-touch areas they tend to gravitate toward. Whatever that would be, go there first.”

Hosts will be responsible for taking advantage of educational resources that will be made available by Airbnb, undergoing a certification process, and attesting to the implementation of the standards.

“By making these commitments, hosts will have their listings clearly identified as part of the Airbnb Enhanced Cleaning Initiative inventory,” the Airbnb spokesperson explained. “We trust that our host community is eager to follow through with their commitment and keep providing excellent hospitality to their guests. Trust in our community is also built on our review system, and in the very rare cases when things go wrong, we encourage our users to contact community support so we can respond accordingly.”

As a prospective guest, you might feel frustrated about the prospect of higher cleaning fees — which are sometimes substantial and feel arbitrary — and then feeling like you still have to clean upon check-in. If the house looks and smells clean, and is free from dust, odor, and spots, and if the property has many positive reviews, you have reason to believe reputable hosts followed the expected protocol.

You might also be reassured to consider that any premium paid in the form of a cleaning fee — or extra work you put forth to re-wash dishes for peace of mind — might be worth it for a lodging option that is yours alone. Of course, for short stays, that’s still a lot of work.

Dr. Russo explains that the novel coronavirus is known to settle out of the air fairly quickly, about one to three hours under experimental conditions, and possibly much less in real-world scenarios. So that means that the air quality is not likely to be a concern by the time you receive the keys. This would be especially true under Airbnb’s new buffer policies.

For those reasons, we asked the doctor: If you are the only party booking into your Airbnb for a given stay, would you consider Airbnb a safer option than a hotel, where you’re much likelier to have more person-to-person interactions during your visit?

He answered without equivocating: “I absolutely agree with you. Anything you can do to decrease your encounters with other individuals will be safer. Or if you have those encounters, they’re at safe distances with everyone wearing masks ideally.”

So what if we have the option to choose a no-touch Airbnb, for instance, retrieving keys from a lockbox instead of meeting someone in person for the exchange? Would that be even better?

“Correct, yes,” he said emphatically. “Perfect.”

The doctor’s sentiments echo the party-line remarks made by Airbnb President of Homes Greg Greeley, who said in a statement, “Homes have become a place of shelter, and the future of travel will also rely on a new comfort zone, with the privacy and benefits of a home away from home, without crowds or high turnovers.”

Whether this trend lasts remains to be seen as travel picks up, but the logic dovetails with the science. The fewer contacts the better with other people during your stay.

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