Catharine McConnell watched as things worsened in New York City over the course of the last week.
On Monday, people were going about daily life. But as cases of the novel coronavirus began to rise to the hundreds, calls for social distancing and “flattening the curve” grew, and the city began to shut down, the 30-year-old said she and her 13 friends decided to cancel their upcoming trip to Arizona.
“We know how big of an issue this is now and we know it’s going to become an even bigger issue," McConnell said. "And we decided this trip does not make sense to do, nor is it socially responsible.”
She contacted Vrbo, a homeowner sharing rental company, to let them know they would not be renting after all due to the pandemic. The private company, which partners with local renters around the county, initially replied via email on Saturday, and said it was continuing to leave the decision to grant refunds for cancellations up to individual renters.
“Homeowners and property managers who list homes on Vrbo have been encouraged to adopt more flexible cancellation policies in light of COVID-19 and offer full refunds to those who wish to cancel for concerns of their own well being,” said Jeff Hurst, Vrbo president, in the emailed statement.
But this afternoon, McConnell received a response from the property manager GoodNight Stay, a rental company with properties in Scottsdale, Dallas, Orlando, and Nashville, stating they would not be refunding her – because Arizona is “one of the least affected states,” with “only a few isolated cases.”
“We were about to speak to the Governor’s office today and their general thoughts were that they aren’t too worried about this virus but all governors are establishing measures to help stop the spread," the company told her.
Patrick Ptak, spokesperson for the governor’s office, said this claim is not true.
Arizona currently has 18 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus — relatively low when compared to other states like New York. But as Phoenix New Times' Meg O'Connor wrote today, "The same pattern that has emerged everywhere else in the world will likely be seen here: The cases will increase, slowly at first, then exponentially as they double day by day."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 1.7 million Americans could be killed by the virus, particularly if early intervention efforts are not made to mitigate the spread of the pandemic.
“The streets are bustling and everyone is enjoying the incredible weather, golf, and other attractions,” the email from GoodNight Stay added.
“Which is incredibly troubling, because what we’re seeing from around the world is that nobody’s immune to this,” said McConnell. “Maybe the virus hasn’t impacted parts of Arizona the way it’s starting to in Manhattan or other cities, so do you want people to come? Do you want people from New York, where the virus is becoming rampant, to get on a plane, go patronize your businesses, stay in the homes there, and potentially unknowingly pass this to hundreds more people?"
The customer said for her, it’s not about the refund — it’s about the narrative perpetuated in the renter’s reply.
“It’s exacerbating a larger problem — the whole thing is incredibly frustrating,” she added. “It creates conflicting messages, and lulls you into this false sense of security. My fiancé and I are staying in our apartment and we are not leaving – we have elderly neighbors, and if everyone takes this a little more seriously and does their part so that this doesn’t get worse, it’ll help. But I just was so astounded and felt like that was absolutely appalling when we received that message back.”
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Vrbo’s decision to defer to individual renters stands in stark contrast to other rental sharing companies like Airbnb, which is offering full cancellation refunds to people who booked between March 14 and April 14.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a company of their size to do this,” said McConnell. “I think they should have made an executive decision to take responsibility and handle this in the way that Airbnb and some of the other rental companies are doing. I’m sure there are many rental owners out there who are handling this appropriately, but unfortunately this wasn’t one of those circumstances.”
A GoodNight Stay employee who refused to give her name declined to comment to New Times, but provided an email so the company “can consider responding.” They have not yet replied to the emailed request for comment.
Update: After this story published, GoodNight Stay, the individual property manager, began telling other reporters and media that it had actually sent its email on March 6, not March 16, as multiple emails from Vrbo and screenshots from the customer suggested. Goodnight Stay also began passing around what appeared to be a falsified image of correspondence with a March 6 date. But an email between GoodNight Stay and the customer indicates the buyer first requested a refund on March 11 — five days after GoodNight Stay claimed it sent this message. Vrbo has confirmed Goodnight Stay's claim is not true: GoodNight Stay did indeed send its message denying a refund and falsely alleging a conversation with the Governor's Office on March 16.