Thomas David Kehoe, an Airbnb Superhost for five years, took to the Facebook group “Airbnb Host Community - Vent, Recommend, Discuss,” a forum typically used to complain about rowdy guests or strategize how to appeal Airbnb for a better rating, to ask what he considered an innocuous question:
“How do I offer a 50% discount to vaccinated guests?”
Within a few hours, the post had garnered over a thousand comments, was entangled in several webs of disinformation, and was, as Kehoe described it to The Daily Beast, “a shitstorm.”
The responses were far-ranging. Many anti-vaxx-aligned members balked at what they perceived as “unbelievable discrimination,” while one host wrote “I love the idea! Anything to incentivize people who believe in science and take every available precaution to protect one another.” Another host, however, claimed this was “a fair-housing violation,” going as far as to say it was “violation of HIPA [sic],” as well.
“It is not a violation of HIPAA,” Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor specializing in public health law, told The Daily Beast. “It is certainly lawful to ask if a person has been vaccinated. Businesses can require vaccination as a condition of service. Not only is it lawful to ask, it is ethical. No one has the right to place another person at risk.”
Regardless, things continued to escalate from there. One member joked, “People who test experimental vaccines for discounts are necessary. I’ll be glad to pay a normal price for not being a Guinea pig.” Another went as far as to comment: “I am inspired to offer 50% off to the unvaxxed. So there!” and another raised the stakes, planning to offer “a 69% discount.”
Hosts on Airbnb set their own house rules, price and discounts—all of which must abide to Airbnb’s standards and policies, including their non-discrimination policy.
When one host astutely pointed this out, replying, “This is not discrimination. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can still reserve an Airbnb. It’s just a discount, the same you would offer to a veteran,” they were met with instantaneous backlash. “How dare you compare veterans to people who think that they’re smart having been vaccinated,” another host replied.
Katheran Crawford, the accounts and operations manager for 43 units in Texas, is firmly against offering discounts for vaccinated guests. She argues “asking for proof of vaccination is an intrusion of privacy.” She told The Daily Beast that “that guy can keep the discount and I’ll stay elsewhere [...] There is somebody with a clean, warm stay that I can enjoy without disclosing I have 9 toes, breast cancer, one eye, or have/have not been vaccinated.”
While Crawford says she “might get the vaccine,” she also wanted to mention that she believes “that if it is your time, you will go. I can out run the COVID just to have a snake bite me, a tire blow while I’m racing, etc.”
Hosts continued to comment on the thread throughout the weekend. A group of hosts speculated that the original poster was using vaccinated guests to get around Airbnb’s COVID cleaning policies and was therefore able to offer such a steep discount. One wrote, “Less cleaning = cheaper rate,” or “wouldn’t it be better to spend 20% of that money disinfecting the house?”
Last year, Airbnb announced that all hosts and guests must agree to follow Airbnb’s COVID-19 Safety Practices, which include wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and, for hosts and their teams, abiding by their five-step enhanced cleaning process. Under this policy, cleaning cannot be skirted and Kehoe told The Daily Beast he has “no intention of doing so.” In fact, he has been going above and beyond to ensure the safety of himself and his guests.
Part of this stems from the city law in Boulder surrounding short term rentals. The law requires short term rentals like Airbnbs to be “the owner’s principal residence.” Basically you have to live there as well. As a result, Kehoeis extra cautious of who he lets stay with him. While he performs the standard cleaning Airbnb requires, he has also installed two ventilators for added safety. He has even upgraded his residence with touchless light switches so guests can move about without touching fixtures, if they so choose.
But his biggest safety measure is a simple one: asking questions. Upon request to book, Kehoe sends an auto-message to prospective guests that reads:
“Can you tell me more about yourself and why you're visiting Boulder? Are you social distancing? What states have you visited recently? Do you believe that COVID-19 is a hoax?”
For Azure Campbell, who has been a host for three years, this line of questioning is akin to systemic racism. She told The Daily Beast, “There used to be ads that said ‘If you’re colored, you can’t stay here.’ This is the same level of thinking.”
She went on to say, “This pandemic is a psychological political operation being used to further an agenda and usher in one of world governance. Their objective is for us to live in fear. I refuse to do so. ‘Germs’ are good, germ theory is a lie. Health comes from lifestyle choices and positive thought, never from poisoning the body and fearful thinking.”
Another Superhost for four years, Lovelynn Gwinn, told The Daily Beast she was concerned about this trend of asking for information and people “being coerced into taking the vaccine for monetary benefit.” She also mentioned that the vaccines “have not been proven to protect people from spreading COVID.” She continued, “These are my buildings. I will create the rules in my property.”
Fair enough. But doesn’t this host have the same right?
“No,” Gwinn said. “If this host needs this, then they should not be a host. What is next? Proof that you don’t have Herpes?”
When The Daily Beast informed her that Airbnb allowed discounts like these, Gwinn said she “plans to look for an Airbnb alternative.”
“I do not feel that a vaccine is necessary for a disease that 99.9% of the people who get it survive just fine. Actually,” she went on, “the same number of people died in 2019 before COVID as 2020. There was no increase in overall deaths.”
When asked for where she was getting this data, she said the CDC site but would not provide a link. This is not what the CDC site says. In November, Reuters fact-checked the meme she was likely referring to and found it misleading. Instead, as of this writing, more than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
“Isn’t it funny how no one dies of heart attacks, strokes, cancer or accidents?” Gwinn asked. “All deaths are marked as COVID and thanks to the Cares Act, hospitals get a 20% premium for those patients with COVID.”
USA Today fact-checked this claim, published by The Spectator in April, and found “there is no evidence” of hospitals misattributing COVID deaths to receive a 20 percent premium.
Gwinn went on: “Look, I only had one set of guests who seemed obsessed with the masks. They were from Minnesota visiting their daughter. I had to laugh as I passed by the window and looked in from the outside. They had masks on while they were watching TV alone in the apartment.”
Gwinn herself does not wear a mask outside in NYC, “and no one ever bothers me,” she said.
Although Kehoe opted to disengage from the Facebook thread after posting, buried beneath a deluge of comments and DMs for the remainder of his weekend, he told The Daily Beast that when a disagreement occurs with one of his guests, he’s open to working towards a compromise.
He described a situation with a guest who wasn’t an “anti-vaxxer, just clueless.” The guest was invited to a party outside and to a sweat lodge afterwards. When the guest asked Kehoe if it was alright for him to go, Kehoe told him sure, so long as he didn’t return.
“I said I’ll give you a full refund, just don’t come back if you go to the sweat lodge.”
Ultimately they reached an understanding.
In response to this online fiasco, an Airbnb spokesperson told The Daily Beast: “Last spring, we partnered with leading experts in health and hospitality hygiene to implement the first overarching standardized guidelines for cleaning and sanitization in the home sharing industry. Since then, we have continued to prioritize health and safety, from educating our community on our five-step cleaning process to keeping them informed of local travel restrictions and advisories. We'll continue to look to the public health experts for guidance on how to best support our hosts, guests and communities.”
As for anti-vaxxers, Kehoe didn’t seem to know they even existed before this fracas, or for that matter, that they were as prevalent in the Airbnb host community. Seeing the strong reactions to his Facebook question makes one wonder how future vaccination incentivization programs, both in the public and private sector, will be reacted to as the vaccine becomes more widely available.
But for now, Kehoe has his answer. “I guess the good part of all of this is I’ve figured out I don’t have to say no to anti-vaxxers staying here,” he said. “I can just put the discount up and based on the response, it doesn’t look like any of them will want to book my place anyway.”