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Wolf shuts down short-term rentals in Poconos

Heeding the strong pleas of seven legislators who represent the four Pocono counties (Carbon, Monroe, Pike and Wayne), Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday that he has temporarily banned short-term rentals in the region to put the brakes on the spread of the coronavirus and to discourage tri-state residents from taking refuge in the resort area.

Wolf thanked the bipartisan efforts of the Legislature for calling the situation to his attention.

In reversing the classification of these rentals, Wolf said, “There is nothing that is essential about a short-term rental in the Poconos, so that is why we have shut them down.” Originally, these rentals were classified as “essential” because they provided shelter.

Owners who had been listing their properties on Airbnb and other short-term rental sites in an effort to entice New York City and New Jersey residents to escape these “hot spots” will now face criminal action and heavy fines if they fail to heed the directive.

Some rental agencies were touting the area in ads as a “coronavirus-free zone” and as an “escape” from the virus’s epicenter in New York City and northern New Jersey.

“You may not rent until this pandemic is under control,’’ said State Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe and Northampton. He instructed owners and rental agencies who have received deposits to return them. “Monroe is under lockdown; there should be no movement of traffic across borders except for life-sustaining business,” Scavello said.

Scavello explained that the purpose of the order is not to hurt these businesses but to save lives. “In any other circumstances, I would not intercede on someone’s livelihood, but we are in the eye of the storm. If we do not shelter in place, many more people will get sick, and many more will die.”

Scavello also warned that if these measures are not followed, they will not see any summer rental revenues because the pandemic timeline will be lengthened.

State Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe and Pike, thanked Wolf for the action. She added a dig at the Democratic governor, saying that she had been advocating for this decision “for weeks” by sending information and speaking to Wolf’s aides.

“When metropolitan New York’s caseloads began to rise, our region’s proximity and popularity as a vacation destination were at extreme risk,” Brown said.

Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, said while the Pocono region is a tourist-based economy that gratefully welcomes thousands of visitors and vacationers annually, it is not equipped to be a shelter in a pandemic, and he said it would be irresponsible for thousands of people to come here who wouldn’t be able to get proper care if they became ill. Because of limited medical resources in Carbon County, “we just wouldn’t be able to handle the onslaught,” Heffley said.

Heffley said he spoke Wednesday to officials at some rental agencies to explain the problem, and he said they seemed to understand his and his colleagues’ grave concerns.

Heffley noted the distinction between these rentals and those from the New York City area who own second homes here. If they are in these homes, they are expected to observe the governor’s shelter-in-place order.

As for enforcement, Heffley said the task will be up to state and local police with information from the public, but he also said, “They won’t be kicking down doors and dragging people out of these places.”

The other legislators who signed the strongly worded letter to Wolf were: Reps. Maureen Madden, D-Monroe; Jack Rader, R-Monroe; Mike Peifer, R-Pike and Wayne; and Jonathan Fritz, R-Wayne.