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AirBnb refuses to refund Tahoe rental deposit as wildfires, Delta variant threaten travel plans

By Maria Medina

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    SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Between a new CDC warning about the dangers of traveling amid the delta variant COVID-19 case surge and the widely felt impacts of the Northern California wildfires, some Bay Area residents aren’t feeling a lot of enthusiasm for the upcoming holiday weekend.

Tristan Semmelhack from South San Francisco made plans with four college friends to spend the Labor Day weekend in Tahoe, but when the Caldor Fire exploded he decided it would be best to cancel their trip.

“A few days later headlines are completely filled with Tahoe is on the brink of being on fire,” said Semmelheck. “That made us quickly change plans.”

But Semmelheck soon discovered neither the owner of the AirBnb home he rented, nor the San Francisco-based company, would grant him a refund.

He said he reached out to the owner of the home on Monday to cancel the two day stay. According to Semmelhack, the owner told him to reach out to AirBnb instead.

“So they contacted the host and, yeah, the host was unable to offer anything,” said Semmelhack. “In fact, saw no problem with us coming up to North Lake Tahoe at this time. Deemed it perfectly livable, which I would disagree.”

An AirBnb spokesperson said because the home is not in the South Lake Tahoe area where the fire is burning, the company’s “extenuating circumstances policy” that allows for cancellations without penalty does not apply.

But Semmelhack said he tried to explain to the host and company that the air quality from the smoke makes the area as well as the lake unhealthy, and that he did not want to risk impeding emergency vehicles or potentially becoming stuck in gridlock.

What’s more, Incline Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau CEO and President Andy Chapman is now trying to warn tourists to stay away as half the area is under evacuation orders.

“It’s really not the right time for visitors to come and enjoy Tahoe,” Chapman said. “We have to keep these roads open for possible further evacuation needs as well as emergency equipment that is going to be is active in the area.”

This Labor Day, AAA predicts a record number of people at California beaches. But it’s not just wildfires threatening weekend plans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning this week for even vaccinated travelers to think twice about going anywhere as COVID-19 cases climb worldwide.

“People need to take these risks into their own consideration as they think about traveling,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “First and foremost, if you are unvaccinated, we would recommend not traveling.”

“Labor Day is a bit of an icing on the cake, typically for the summer,” Chapman said.

Semmelhack agrees. That’s why he and his friends chose Tahoe.

Despite AirBnb refusing to refund them the $500 they paid up-front for their two night stay, they’ve decided it’s just not safe to go to Tahoe. They were refunded a $300 cleaning fee, but not AirBnb’s service fee, according to Semmelhack.

He said it’s not just about the money, however, he said it’s also about the principle.

“It’s just rather disappointing,” said Semmelhack. “I think part of hosting is ensuring that your guests are safe and this is a healthy environment to be living in.”

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