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Berkshire legislator asks Gov. Baker to crack down on short-term rental industry

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In response to growing alarm about people fleeing to the Berkshires to escape cities besieged by the coronavirus pandemic, one county legislator is asking Gov. Charlie Baker to shut down the short-term rental industry, at least in Berkshire County.

Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said Sunday that he contacted Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito Saturday about what he says should be a decisive order that would not allow any kind of hotel or inn to allow guests. The only exception would be for traveling medical workers, or for use if more beds are needed to contend with a surge in patients.

He said that Baker could order a temporary shutdown statewide the way Vermont has, or apply it only to Berkshire County.

"With no county government, who do you empower?" Pignatelli said. "We are 32 little fiefdoms. We're seeing a big influx. We need to give power to the towns to enforce it."

Pignatelli said while Baker and town officials are urging visitors to stay home and asking second-home owners to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, they can't regulate rentals through online sites like Airbnb.

There's no local oversight or registration to identify which homes or buildings are hosting guests, Pignatelli said. While some of the online sites are offering refunds, it is still possible to book a stay.

Pignatelli and town officials say there are too many loopholes that could endanger the public and tax rural public health and safety systems.

The issue is yet another that took Berkshire towns by surprise since the pandemic began to flare in the Northeast mid-month. And the county is now further on alert, as Pittsfield finds itself with a per-capita rate of cases and deaths that approaches the rate of New York City, now the epicenter of the crisis. On Sunday, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Berkshires rose from 119 to 151, and a woman died, bringing the death total to five.

As fear strikes, so does hate. Social media is aflame with accusations that outsiders have stripped the town of toilet paper. Others are trying to quell this.

But, one can still rent a place here.

On Airbnb, the owner of a Berkshires home listed at $450 a night says they are taking extra precautions. "The cleaning staff ... is working double to sanitize everything they can, as often as possible," it says on the listing page. "Be sure that we will do our part to keep you safe and healthy."

Pignatelli said it is the county's close ties with New York City that worries officials and residents, as visitors and second-home owners scatter to country homes in an area that hasn't escaped the virus.

Disquiet has plagued Great Barrington of late. The South County hub is popular with New Yorkers and the local economy relies in part on their spending.

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One local innkeeper has had cancellations in the past month, but also received inquires in the last two weeks.

"People from New York City wanting to rent for a month or two," said Carrie Chen, owner of Barrington House Bed and Breakfast on Main Street. Chen said she shut the operation down March 15.

Some people, however, have been offended by the town's press releases urging second-home owners and others to avoid travel here.

"The problem is, they're taking it as `these people aren't welcome here,'" said Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon. "They are welcome all the time. The point is that our resources are taking a hit."

When asked what that is, so far, Bannon said it is more a projection of future needs.

"We're all worried about the apex," he said. "The hospital only has so many beds. We can't build another hospital."

Both Bannon and board Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams wrote a letter to the editor about this growing tension.

"You are our friends and neighbors," they wrote. "We are not turning on you, we are concerned for EVERYONE'S safety."

Bannon said Sunday he agrees that towns need help from above right now.

"We need more top-down governance," he said. "The governor is doing a great job, but we don't have county government."

Pignatelli said the point of an official edict from Boston would be to force people to endure the pain of isolation now, rather than stretch out a pandemic that will wreck the summer season and cripple the economy.

"What happens if Tanglewood shuts down?" he asked.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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