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Gov. John Carney has lifted Delaware's temporary ban on short-term rentals and the requirement for out-of-state travelers to quarantine for 14 days.
Outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people, including weddings and outdoor ceremonies, will also be allowed in the coming week, the governor announced Tuesday. Cloth face coverings must be worn and people must stand six-feet away.
These are the latest restrictions the governor has eased up on as Delaware plans to restart parts of its economy in the coming week. Like the reopening of restaurants and businesses, these latest announcements take effect June 1.
Carney will also lift the state's stay-at-home order on June 1, though he cautioned people to "continue to avoid unnecessary outings and gatherings to limit community spread of COVID-19."
"I feel really comfortable today about the decisions" to lift previous restrictions, Carney said at a press briefing Tuesday.
Organizers who want to host a gathering of more than 250 people have to apply to do so by submitting a plan to Delaware Division of Small Business at least seven days prior to the event. Residents organizing events with 250 people or less do not need to submit a plan to the state.
The Department of Education is also expected to release a plan on Tuesday about outdoor graduations.
As of May 26, health officials have confirmed 9,066 cases in Delaware. The state saw the smallest daily increase in confirmed cases in weeks, with 101 new cases confirmed from the previous day.
Three more Delawareans died from the virus, health officials said, to bring the total fatality count to 335.
The Delaware beaches and boardwalks fully reopened for Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. At the time, only Delawareans and those non-residents who completed the mandatory quarantine were allowed to take advantage of the sandy beaches.
When he was at the beach this weekend, Carney said he was "pretty excited" about the number of people he saw wearing face masks and social distancing.
"It was a day to feel good about the progress we've made in Delaware," the governor said.
He also attributed the easing of the restrictions to the decrease in hospitalizations and the increase in testing capability — which officials said has doubled in the past two weeks.
Yet at some locations along the beaches, people were seen not social distancing or following public health guidelines. This weekend, photos circulated of crowded beaches and boardwalks in Ocean City, Maryland.
"If I would have seen this yesterday on the boardwalk in Rehoboth, we would have been having a hard discussion today I think," Carney said of the viral photos of Ocean City.
With more people expected to come to the Delaware beaches as the weather warms, Carney said he prefers "positive educational reinforcement" over negative enforcement, like citations, when it comes to making sure social distancing measures are maintained.
"People feel, to a certain extent rightly so, a little put out by everything," Carney said. "And they feel like the government shouldn't tell them to do this or that or the other thing. Even though everything we have done has been with the objective of protecting their health and everyone else's."
"It will take a delicate balance," he said of the reopening. "It will be harder."
It's unclear the effect the reopening of the state will have on the state's hospitalization rate or the percent of new positive cases. Carney said public health experts have suggested that these numbers could slightly increase.
But Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, said at the briefing that if Delawareans "wear face coverings and keep themselves distanced from one another no matter where they are, I think we can keep this under wraps."
"But I think a lot of it has to do with us," she said.
'We’re ready to go'
In Delaware, the ban on short-term rentals resulted in cancellations for thousands of rental properties in an area that supports a significant number of seasonal businesses and workers.
Carney has faced pressure in recent weeks to lift the short-term rental ban. Earlier this month, Patrick J. Murray, a Delaware resident, filed a lawsuit in federal court regarding these restrictions.
The Sussex County Association of Realtors asked the governor in a letter to lift the ban and the mandatory quarantine so those tourists can "enjoy the attractions that made them choose to spend time here in Delaware, rather than go to a neighboring state, perhaps never to return."
Before the short-term rental ban was lifted, real estate experts in southern Delaware were estimating millions in potential losses that would have a ripple effect throughout eastern Sussex County businesses, which rely heavily on tourism and out-of-state visitors.
“We are ecstatic,” said Patricia Anderson, CEO of the Sussex County Association of Realtors. “People are split on this, so it was extremely important to us to be able to be a part of that safe reopening and be able to provide input. It’s not like he’s going to do this and open a fire house.”
She previously estimated at least $15 million in losses for June if the ban stood for short-term rentals in southern Delaware.
Anderson said that June is typically a slower month for rentals compared to the rest of the summer. Now that they will be allowed again, it’s just a matter of figuring out what guidelines they will have to follow.
In a previous interview, Anderson said rental companies are already prepared to follow CDC guidelines on sanitation and cleanliness. Some have even taken measures a step further by planning to do whole-house fogging in between rental stays.
There was also a concern among real estate experts like Anderson whether the ban on out-of-state visitors and stays would have a lasting impact on how visitors view the Delaware beaches, which have technically been off-limits to non-Delaware residents for more than two months.
“We’re very thankful to the governor for allowing us to be a part of the discussion,” Anderson said on Tuesday.
William Sullivan, treasurer and past chairman of the Delaware Hotel & Lodging Association, applauded Carney’s decision to lift the short-term rental ban that has been in effect since early April.
He estimated that at least six hotels in New Castle County were forced to close during the coronavirus restrictions as occupancy rates plummeted from 75% to less than 10% in a week’s time.
He said hotels need to have an occupancy rate of at least 60% to break even, let alone make profits.
“We’re all ready and we’ve staffed properly,” said Sullivan, who also is the managing director at the Courtyard by Mariott in Newark at the University of Delaware. “We have the proper protective equipment. We’ve got operating procedures and everything we need. We’re ready to go. It’s going to be fun.”
However, staying in a hotel this summer won’t look the same. Masks and social distancing will be required, some gathering areas may be limited or off-limits completely, and direct contact with staff will be at a minimum, he said.
Whether people will be ready to travel again this summer is another story. Sullivan said he’s seen mixed survey results on that, and either way, “it’s going to be a long road back to build occupancy.”
He said it’s too soon to tell if any hotels will go under, but estimated that if they can restore occupancy levels by 30-50% in the next 30-60 days, they’ll be just fine.
“If the beaches hadn’t been opened and we went into July, I would worry about some of the hotels in Sussex County because the window for revenue is that short period of 3-4 months,” he said. “We’re going to do our share and protect our customers and associates and get Delaware back into the tourism business.”
Sullivan said he’s already prepared a new slogan for the summer of COVID-19: “We’re the First state. We’re going to be the first stop as you start traveling.”