Pa. short-term rental owners defy COVID-19 shutdown order; state to seize medical supplies

UPDATED: 4:28 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Short-term rental property owners in Pennsylvania continue to advertise lodging in defiance of Gov. Tom Wolf's coronavirus shutdown order, administration officials said Wednesday.

Wolf banned short-term residential rentals last week after state lawmakers in the Pocono Mountains complained that property owners had been trying to entice travelers from virus hotspots New Jersey and New York.

But owners are continuing to advertise availability using Airbnb, VRBO and other platforms, "unnecessarily putting the health of the public in even greater jeopardy than is already the case," wrote Dennis M. Davin, secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development.

Davin wrote to Airbnb Inc. and Expedia Group, which owns VRBO, asking them to tell hosts who are violating the shutdown order that they are not allowed to operate.

Davin said the administration is seeking voluntary compliance but warned of "significant consequences" for short-term rental owners if they don't stop advertising availability.

Airbnb has said its hosts may not reference "COVID-19," "coronavirus" or "quarantine" in listing titles, advertise themselves as virus-free or encourage guests to ignore travel advisories. Expedia has offered similar guidance. Both platforms say violators' listings can be removed.

Airbnb said it has already informed hosts to check for local restrictions on short-term rentals.

“Airbnb is working with local governments in real time to both address these orders and ensure short-term rentals are an available resource for frontline responders and those sheltering in place during this crisis,” said Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy for Airbnb.

The Associated Press emailed Expedia seeking comment on the Wolf administration's allegations.

Pennsylvania to seize medical supplies

Pennsylvania emergency management officials will be permitted to commandeer N95 face masks, ventilators and other crucial medical equipment for use in the fight against COVID-19 under an order signed Wednesday by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The order mandates that private and public health care facilities, manufacturers and other companies tabulate their supplies of personal protective equipment, drugs and other medical equipment, and provide an inventory to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency within five days.

PEMA will make the supplies available to areas of the state hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, Wolf's order said, and it will be up to state agencies to repay the entities from which the equipment was taken.

“Combatting a pandemic means we all have to work together and that means we need to make the best use of our medical assets to ensure the places that need them most have them,” Wolf said in a statement.

“Today, I am signing an order that will allow us to transfer supplies, and information between medical facilities to both high-population, high-impact areas and lower population areas that might not have as many existing medical resources,” he said.

Several other states, including New York and Minnesota, have issued similar orders.

New cases and deaths

The Department of Health reported 1,680 new confirmed cases of the virus, bringing the statewide total to more than 16,000. There were 70 new deaths, for a statewide toll of 310.

Officials say 82,299 patients have tested negative to date.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Community spirit

Wolf has joined community leaders in a call to end discrimination related to COVID-19. The administration is asking the public to look out for their neighbors and to stay vigilant against hate, after Pennsylvania State Police reported an increasing number of incidents targeting Asian Americans.

And the governor and First Lady Frances Wolf stressed the need for community volunteerism, noting that distributing meals and life-sustaining services is an essential activity, even with the stay-at-home order in effect.

Delaware County groceries

Seniors in Delaware County now can get those much-needed groceries without leaving their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. The County of Delaware Services for the Aging is teaming with Community Transit to do the shopping for them.

Officials say drivers will pick up grocery lists and payment — then shop and deliver the items so seniors can stay safely inside.

The service is available by calling 215-900-2519, or by sending a reuest by email to GroceryDropOff@CTDelco.org.

Trout season opens early

State officials surprised those who fish for trout by quietly opening the season early.

Mike Parker, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said state officials had concerns about people congregating at lakes and streams for the planned April 18 opening day.

So, they decided to do what he called a “soft opening” on Tuesday.

“This gives us the opportunity to slow those big crowds from gathering in one spot the night before, early in the morning before the opening day of the season,” Parker said. “And just sort of giving ourselves a chance to say, ‘We’re not really selling fishing right now. We’re selling social distancing while fishing.’”

Warehouse inspections

More than 20 local governments in hard-hit northeastern Pennsylvania are banding together to make sure the warehouse industry and other large businesses are following state health and safety orders amid an alarming rise in virus cases in the region.

Regional code enforcement teams in Luzerne County will perform random inspections of large commercial buildings that remain open during the COVID-19 shutdown, officials announced Wednesday. Luzerne County has reported more than 1,100 cases of COVID-19, one of the highest infection rates in the state.

The inspectors will enforce Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine's order that requires owners of large buildings to enforce social distancing between workers and routinely clean and disinfect high-touch areas.

A new website allows workers and others to submit concerns anonymously.

More than 20,000 people work in the region's extensive network of industrial parks, raising concerns about the risk of viral spread.

Flags lowered

Wolf ordered flags at all state buildings and grounds to be lowered to half-staff until further notice to honor victims of the pandemic. He invited all Pennsylvania residents to follow suit.

"Too many Pennsylvanians have lost their lives to COVID-19, and, unfortunately, many more will die," Wolf said in a written statement.

"This virus prevents us from honoring the dead at traditional gatherings. We cannot have funerals, wakes, or sit shiva. I hope this flag lowering provides some solace to the grieving families and friends," he wrote.

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KYW Newsradio's Mark Abrams and Eric Walter, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.