Donna Lyerly and her team now spend four hours or more each week disinfecting Airbnb properties with strong chemicals. They drain and clean outdoor hot tubs, wipe board game pieces and remove items that are harder to sanitize, such as throw pillows and decorative bedspreads.
"Before Covid, we were cleaning and polishing, and calling it good. It never occurred to us that we had to kill pathogens," said Lyerly, who with her husband Keith manages two dozen short-term rental properties listed on Airbnb and other vacation rental sites. "Now, we can spend 45 minutes wiping lamp and light switches, remotes, anything anyone would've touched in any way. It all has to be wiped down."
For months, Airbnb hosts struggled with the financial fallout from an avalanche of cancellations due to the pandemic. Now hosts must confront a different kind of struggle as that demand comes back: how much they are willing -- and can afford -- to do to ensure their properties are safe for customers resuming travel while the pandemic rages on.
The topic has been debated and discussed in private Facebook groups for hosts, viewed by CNN Business, with some weighing whether to ask guests to bring their own sheets and towels. Some hosts told CNN Business they plan to leave longer gaps in between stays to reduce potential for contamination, an approach Airbnb encourages; others refused to do so given the lost income from those unbooked days.
Ray Cox, who owns and manages multiple Airbnb properties in Indiana and Florida, is still doing same-day turnarounds, now that he's starting to see interest again after a three-month dry spell. He estimates he had $150,000 worth of bookings canceled.
When asked if he'd opt into an Airbnb feature to block off 72 hours between guest, he said: "I wouldn't even consider that. ...Our feeling was, if it's clean, it's clean. If we're wiping every surface and using a proper cleaner, if it's clean, it should be clean."
The cleaning issue poses a unique challenge for Airbnb at a time when it is finally seeing travel rebound. (Airbnb said it had more US bookings between May 17 and June 3, which included Memorial Day on May 25, than the same period a year earlier.) It must simultaneously work to instill confidence in guests that their stays will be safe while also trying not to overburden the millions of hosts who power its platform and have already been frustrated by recent company moves and are cash-strapped during the pandemic.
In late April, Airbnb released new enhanced cleaning protocols for hosts with guidance from a former US Surgeon General, including recommendations for how to clean every room in a home and an opt-in feature called Booking Buffer that creates an automatic 72-hour vacancy period between guests. Those hosts who commit to this cleaning protocol will get a special call-out on their listing that guests can see. But for hosts who don't opt in to these tools, it's difficult for Airbnb to enforce and monitor how hosts are cleaning.
"Although risk in travel can never be fully eliminated in any kind of lodging, we designed our expert backed cleaning protocol to help provide more peace of mind to guests and hosts," an Airbnb spokesperson said in a statement provided to CNN Business.
Airbnb also said homes provide the benefit of private spaces without the risks of common spaces like lobbies or dining halls that travelers might find in a hotel, and that hosts have an incentive to keep homes clean to receive good reviews. However, some analysts argue Airbnb does not have the same consistent standards that a hotel would have and individual properties can be difficult to vet.
"Hotels have universal cleaning ingredients, training and even consistent rooms which enable very structured and consistent processes," said Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at research firm Forrester. "Airbnb cannot maintain standards and it has no great way of auditing procedures in individual venues. The hope is that ratings and reviews are the auditing process but who wants to be the guinea pig for that?"
In the absence of one clearly enforced set of cleaning practices for all, hosts are doing what feels best to them.
Cox's cleaning crews now do a deep clean after every stay, wiping down blinds and the top edges of doors. They have added a second or third person to help clean each rental and cleaning times have jumped from two hours to up to five. They're also swapping out pillows, comforters and other bedding after each guest.
Other Airbnb hosts or their cleaners are waiting 24 hours to enter the property after guests leave, even though they know it means lost income. And even then, they're still doing a deep clean.
"110% it will hurt our business," said Neerav Patel, an Airbnb host in Pennsylvania who waits one day now before entering the property or sending a cleaning crew. "But it's just being a responsible citizen. It's the best thing to do for our community."