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By Virginia Linn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Forty million guests, 34,000 cities, 1,400 castles and 190 countries.

These are the latest stats for Airbnb, the home-sharing lodging site founded in 2008 that now has 1.5 million listings worldwide. It looks like the $25 billion service is here to stay, at least until something more innovative comes along to provide alternatives to the traditional hotel industry.

For many travelers — and not just those in their 20’s and 30’s — Airbnb is providing more choices, particularly in expensive cities or communities where there is a dearth of affordable hotel rooms. And now the service is reaching out to business travelers to make it easier for them to find homelike accommodations while on the road.

I’ve stayed in five Airbnbs — from Providence, R.I., to Orlando, Fla., to New York City to Paris and Berlin — and for the most part the experiences have been positive. I welcomed the chance for short-term stays in full apartments with family or friends instead of cramped, overpriced hotel rooms.

That’s not to say the service hasn’t had its horror stories. In July, a 19-year-old Massachusetts man reported he was held captive and sexually molested by his Airbnb host in Madrid. And websites such as airbnbhell.com, Trustpilot and Quora abound with stories of absent hosts, last-minute cancellations, filthy rooms, apartment doors that don’t lock and profile descriptions that misrepresent the place. On the flip side, hosts have found their homes wrecked by disruptive guests or personal items stolen.

The New York full apartment we booked had a great location near Times Square and its room photos depicted the place fairly accurately (it was clean and had strong Wi-Fi). Yet our stay was disrupted by a ridiculously loud party in an apartment next door. The pounding music didn’t end until 3:30 a.m.

In Berlin in August, we loved our large, two-bedroom apartment, which was airy and modern and just footsteps from a U-Bahn stop. What the profile didn’t mention was that it overlooked a cemetery. That didn’t bother us, but it could have spooked others.

Guests can have bad experiences in hotels, too. I’ve stayed in a pricey boutique hotel in New York City that was infested with bedbugs and a historic resort in Central Pennsylvania that charged 5-star prices but delivered 2-star service.

Clearly you’ve got to be an intrepid traveler to give Airbnb a go. My twenty-something kids are frequent users and haven’t yet had any problems, but I always hold my breath when I click the button to book a place.

I do get a thrill when it turns out to be a gem. I was delighted with the breakfast of homemade granola, yogurt, fruit and French-press coffee that my host prepared each morning during my stay near Orlando. She had a lovely designer’s home full of modern artwork, and I had a whole wing of the house to myself. She and her Scottish husband, empty-nesters, opened up their home to Airbnb travelers because they loved meeting interesting people and had hosted guests from New Zealand to Nova Scotia. It was $77 a night (plus cleaning and booking fees) instead of the $240 I would have paid for a hotel in the same neighborhood.

Then there was the owner of our lovely and meticulously clean Paris apartment this past August, who spent a half-hour explaining the neighborhood and all the local sites. He even arranged a cab for us for our early-morning departure the day we left.

I first tried Airbnb in Providence a couple of years ago to visit my children at college. Even the cheapest hotel room — with fees and taxes — tops $200 a night.

I found a place for $70 a night, a bedroom with private half-bath in a duplex along a 1.6-mile linear park perfect for my morning jogs. The owner was a doctor who quit after two years to study art; her husband was a composer. They made me feel welcome and the stay overall was what I needed — affordable and where I wanted it.

An important caution is that Airbnb does not do background checks on hosts or guests. This can pose a risk for both parties. Airbnb did not make any official available for comment or questions, but on its website the company believes it has put in place checks and balances in the form of reviews and verified ID and customer profiles.

Like other sites in the sharing economy, guests rate the host and the host rates the guest. A writer for Business Insider recently complained that because the reviews are not anonymous, guests would feel pressured to write just positive reviews because they feared they might be rejected by future hosts.

Indeed, a spot check of reviews of Airbnb bookings shows mostly glowing descriptions. “The property was exactly as described and in the pictures.” “Gorgeous apartment, even better than description.” “Lovely place, would stay again!”

In explaining its review policy, Airbnb writes: “Our community is built on trust, and trust comes from honest conversation. Therefore, we ask for reviews that are truthful, clear and helpful to both the review’s recipient and the wider Airbnb community. … We strongly discourage personal insults, opinion that’s not backed up by examples, or generally unsociable behavior.”

It doesn’t censor, but “we may take the extraordinary step of disallowing or removing reviews or review responses. We reserve the right to remove reviews that violate review guidelines.”

In July 2014, Airbnb made a change to its review policy, in which reviews are revealed to the hosts and guests simultaneously. It also offers a place for private messages so guests can share concerns about their stay.

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(c)2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Kate and Nik Stoltzfus, shown in July 2014, are among the hundreds of Pittsburghers who use Airbnb to rent out rooms, apartments or homes. They rent out a mother-in-law apartment in Garfield and screen potential guests carefully. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.