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Wolf places 7 more counties under stay-home order

James Lin, D.O., walks down a hallway at the LECOM Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Erie, Pa., on Monday, March 30, 2020. The staff at the facility have prepared this wing of the facility for possible future LECOM patients, including those who have tested positive for COVID-19, and those who need to be tested. (Christopher Millette/Erie Times-News via AP)
March 31, 2020 - 4:06 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Gov. Tom Wolf added seven more counties Tuesday to his order to stay at home as the new virus expanded its reach and Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Wolf 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.

One day after President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in Pennsylvania, the state's emergency management agency said it would begin contacting potential applicants, which include state, county and municipal governments and eligible nonprofits.

Trump's order allows for federal assistance to supplement state and local pandemic recovery efforts.

The Wolf administration also signalled it plans to take action on short-term rental properties after some of them came under fire for trying to lure fleeing New York and New Jersey residents with coronavirus-themed marketing pitches.

In other developments Tuesday:

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CASES

The Department of Health reported more than 750 additional coronavirus cases, bringing the total number to over 4,800. There were 14 new deaths for a statewide toll of 63.

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.

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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 travellers from virus hotspots New Jersey and New York, and the governor signalled that he plans to take action.

GOP Rep. Rosemary Brown urged Wolf 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 travellers “looking to escape the epicenter.”

Wolf spokeswoman Lindsay Kensinger said Tuesday night that “the governor agrees that short-term rental properties should not be in operation and the administration is working on guidance to address this."

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 vacation rentals and other traveller accommodations — at least for now — and a state police spokesman said earlier Tuesday that troopers have no authority to cite short-term rental owners.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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