Trump declares major disaster in Pennsylvania

UPDATED: 5:20 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 756 new cases of COVID-19 in the state, as well as 14 additonal deaths, on Tuesday. Just the night before, President Donald Trump had declared a major disaster in the state.

Gov. Tom Wolf requested the declaration, which then went to FEMA for review before going to the president’s desk.

The governor said the declaration means more resources that can really help the state and local governments.

"It would just give us a little more latitude, more flexibility and some more dollars from the federal government," Wolf explained during a press conference on Monday before Trump approved his request. "I think the federal disaster declaration actually gives us some monetary support that we don't have without it."

Wolf added seven more counties Tuesday to his order to stay at home as the virus expanded its reach. He told residents of Lebanon, Franklin, Somerset, Lawrence, Cameron, Crawford and Forest counties to stay home at least through April 30, bringing to 33 the number of counties under the governor's order.

Nearly 11 million Pennsylvania residents, or 85% of the state's population, have now been instructed to remain in their homes, with exceptions that include working at a business that's still open, going to the grocery store or pharmacy, visiting a doctor, caring for a relative or heading outside to exercise.

The Democratic governor says he knows the extended shutdown of businesses, schools and big swaths of daily life "isn't easy to hear," but is necessary to save lives and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

President Trump last approved a disaster declaration for the state in 2018 in response to severe storms and flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania. According to FEMA, the state received nearly $52 million.

New cases and deaths

COVID-19 cases reported by the state Health Department on Tuesday rose by 756 to 4,843 in 60 counties. The department also reported 14 new deaths, bringing the statewide total to 63.

Of the patients who have tested positive, the department says nearly 10% are aged 19-24, nearly 41% are aged 25-49, Nearly 29% are aged 50-64; and Nearly 19% are aged 65 or older.

Most hospitalizations and most deaths have occurred among those 65 or older. No children have died.

#COVID19 Update (as of 3/31/20 at 12:00 am):• 756 additional positive cases of COVID-19• 4,843 total cases statewide• 63 total deaths statewide• 37,645 patients tested negative to dateCounty-specific information + statewide map: https://t.co/7pzosEXhEX

— PA Department of Health (@PAHealthDept) March 31, 2020

The department reported Tuesday that 37,645 tests have come back negative.

For most people, the coronavirus 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.

Short-term rental crackdown?

State lawmakers representing the Pocono Mountains are pressing the Wolf administration to crack down on short-term vacation rentals that are trying to entice travelers from virus hotspots New Jersey and New York.

In a letter to Wolf, GOP Rep. Rosemary Brown urged him to “exercise the appropriate authority” to address “marketing tactics that encourage people to travel from the ‘epicenter’ of the COVID-19 virus to the commonwealth.” Her letter, which was signed by five other Poconos-region lawmakers, cited one owner who advertised a “coronavirus free” destination, and another that enticed travelers “looking to escape the epicenter.”

Separately, Republican Sen. Mario Scavello threatened to refer short-term rental property owners to the state police. Wolf's order closing businesses that are not considered “life sustaining” does not affect traveler accommodations, including vacation rentals.

"Those rentals are not illegal under the governor's order," state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, the region's tourism marketing agency, said it is urging property owners to suspend short-term rentals during the pandemic, noting "an overall social responsibility to the region's health and economic well-being."

The tourism agency also noted that federal authorities have urged residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to refrain from nonessential domestic travel.

Business waivers

The state has received nearly 31,000 waiver requests from businesses appealing Wolf's shutdown order.

The Department of Community and Economic Development has approved 4,925 requests and denied 7,737, according to the latest agency numbers. Another 6,757 requests were filed by businesses that did not need them to continue to operate, agency spokeswoman Casey Smith said Tuesday.

Wolf has ordered businesses his administration deemed "non-life-sustaining" to close their physical locations indefinitely, but established an appeals process.

Smith said the volume of waiver requests has slowed slightly in recent days.

State budget

The pandemic has already dinged the state's bank account.

Tax collections in March were about $300 million shy of expectations as COVID-19 shut down businesses, put hundreds of thousands out of work and kept consumers home.

The shortfall wipes out a $250 million surplus that had been built up over the first eight months of Pennsylvania state government's fiscal year.

The economic slowdown is also expected to have a dramatic effect on tax collections in coming months, promising a difficult budget season for Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning organization based in Harrisburg, projected that state revenue could drop by a total of $4.5 billion to $9 billion in the current fiscal year and the next one.

Road, bridge projects resume

PennDOT has resumed work on limited number of highway and bridge projects after a statewide pause.

The state Department of Transportation halted all nonemergency construction work on March 17 to minimize coronavirus exposure for its workers, private contractors and others.

PennDOT said Tuesday that 61 highway and bridge projects considered to be emergencies or of critical importance will be active this week. The agency said it is taking steps to minimize COVID-19 risk, including protocols for social distancing and handling deliveries of materials.

Immigrants released

A federal judge ordered the immediate release of 10 people from civil detention as they await resolution of their immigration cases.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other lawyers filed suit last week. The lawsuit said the detainees are older or suffer from medical conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ordered the detainees' immediate release from jails in York, Clinton and Pike counties, noting: "At this point, it is not a matter of if COVID-19 will enter Pennsylvania prisons, but when it is finally detected."

The lawsuit had initially been filed on behalf of 13 detainees, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released three of them before the judge issued his order.

COVID addresses shared

Allegheny County said it will start sharing addresses of COVID-19 patients with first responders.

The county's health department agreed to provide the addresses, but not the names, of confirmed coronavirus patients to the 911 system. Then, if an emergency call comes in from a flagged address, a dispatcher will alert first responders so they can take appropriate safety precautions.

The flag will be removed from the system after 30 days.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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