When Amanda Quraishi, a digital marketing and communications strategist based in Austin, reserved an Airbnb recently, she was prompted to review their visitor policy. Upon doing so, she got a nasty surprise: According to her host, she was ineligible to stay at that particular AirBnb because she had received a coronavirus vaccine.
Quraishi tweeted screenshots of the Airbnb house rules, which spelled out that as of May 1, 2021, the hosts would no longer be allowing guests with any of what they called COVID-19 "experimental 'vaccines.'"
The house rules elaborated on the host's reason why: The myth of "vaccine shedding," or the non-existent threat of the COVID-19 vaccines shedding parts of the virus and contaminating unvaccinated people. (COVID vaccine shedding has become a popular talking point in anti-vaccination circles. Vaccines only have a chance of shedding when they contain live attenuated virus, which none of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the United States do.)
When Quraishi cancelled her reservation, which she tweeted she did 15 minutes after making the reservation, she learned that the host wasn't planning on refunding her. In a screenshotted reply, the host wrote, "I can't stress how important it is to familiarize yourself with all the information a host provides before you spend your hard earned money."
Quraishi reached out to Airbnb, which did issue a refund, according to a screenshot of an email. Airbnb confirmed to Motherboard that it had suspended the listing for violating its policies against coronavirus misinformation. Among other things, hosts aren’t allowed to reference COVID-19 or quarantine in their listing titles, and can’t include what Airbnb calls "any health information specific to COVID-19, or links to resources not included in Airbnb’s Coronavirus updates in the Resource Center," a list of articles on cleaning protocols, flexible cancellations, and more.
Amidst a fresh surge of misinformation online about the COVID-19 vaccines, Airbnb is the latest tech platform faced with users posting conspiracy theories and myths that could endanger public health. Last Friday, when asked about misinformation on websites like Facebook, Joe Biden said, "They're killing people. I mean, it really. Look, The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and they're killing people." Pinterest announced in March that it was stepping up enforcement against COVID-19 misinformation, and Twitter recently suspended Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene for a whole 12 hours for posting a variety of deranged lies about COVID vaccines, including claiming that they aren’t necessary for "non-obsese" people and those under 65.
Airbnb’s problem is significantly stickier, though, given that the entire point of the platform is to get strangers into the homes of other strangers. And no matter how many policies they put in place, given the sheer size of the platform, the problem of hosts spreading vaccine myths keeps popping up. In May, writer Charlie Warzel posted on Twitter that a cabin in western Montana had included in their description, "WE ARE RESTRICTING THE CABIN TO NON-COVID VACCINATED GUESTS ONLY. For the health and safety not only [of] other guests but also ourselves,, all covid vaccinated guests are asked to find another vacation rental that allows vaccinated guests."
When Warzel followed up with the host, asking how they could possibly verify whether someone was unvaccinated, the host replied, "it's all on the honor system. We just have to all trust each other. If you say you haven't taken the shots we trust you and you're more than welcome here :)"
Later, Warzel tweeted that it's likely the host saw his viral tweet about the listing, because they responded, "The cabin is not and will not be available to you. And you know exactly why." (A spokesperson from Airbnb told Buzzfeed News that the Montana listing had been suspended "for promoting COVID misinformation in violation of our content policy.") Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said shortly afterwards that the company was "willing to take responsibility and take action if we have to" on COVID misinformation.
But that action doesn’t seem to be proactive; instead, it seems to be reliant on users stumbling across listings containing vaccine misinformation and reporting them. A similar situation just played out over an Airbnb listing in Australia. "I’m not accepting any vaccinated people due to reports of adverse reactions," a "superhost" in Victoria told a potential guest, according to the Guardian. "It’s also transmitting to unvaccinated people and causing them to become unwell. I’m afraid it’s way too experimental at this stage and I need to protect my other guests." The guest told the Guardian that when they initially reported the listing to Airbnb, a support staffer responded that "there was nothing in the company’s terms and conditions preventing hosts from refusing people who have had the Covid-19 vaccine." Only when the Guardian contacted Airbnb did they suspend the host.
Meanwhile, not unreasonably, the vaccination status of guests has been a topic of anxious discussion on Airbnb's Community Center forum, where hosts can communicate with one another. One host wrote in April that she wished AirBnb would add a filter for "Host has been Vaccinated against Covid-19." Others worried about sharing spaces with unvaccinated guests.
Motherboard, meanwhile, found multiple Airbnb listings that require vaccination in their guests. An Airbnb spokesperson gave a boilerplate statement when asked if that’s permissible on the platform, telling us, "As a global company with hosts in more than 220+ countries and regions around the world, we know communities are at different stages of their COVID-19 containment efforts and policies continue to evolve. As a result, we encourage Hosts and Guests to follow their local health and travel requirements in addition to Airbnb’s policies. Airbnb has prioritized health and safety from the start and will continue to work with governments and listen to health experts to inform how we approach vaccines and travel." What action the company will take is unclear.