Striving to stay ‘a step ahead’

Sweeping new actions taken as COVID-19 cases rise to 23 in RI

The Cranston Herald ·

Joining Massachusetts in another unprecedented step meant to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Gina Raimondo this week announced that dine-in service as restaurants, bars and other establishments will be prohibited through March 30.

“This is a serious step because we’re confronting a serious crisis,” the governor said Monday.

Over the course of three briefings held Monday and Tuesday, Raimondo and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott conveyed guarded optimism regarding the COVID-19 crisis locally, even as they advised that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better.

“We are a step ahead of the virus at this point,” Raimondo said Monday.

She added on Tuesday: “At this point, Rhode Island is handling this as well, if not better, than every other state … If we stay level headed about it and follow the directions, we’re going to get through it.”

The number of cases in Rhode Island has risen slightly since last week, to 23. Alexander-Scott on Monday announced that for the first time, officials consider community spread of the virus to be underway in the state.

“We have started to see cases where we have not been able to immediately identify the source of illness,” Alexander-Scott said. “To err on the side of caution and to help us stay two steps ahead of this, we are saying that Rhode Island has community spread.”

The latest positive COVID-19 cases involve two women in their 40s and a man in his 50s, Alexander-Scott said. Officials continue to investigate the chain of infection in the two women, one of who was said to be hospitalized in stable condition and the other who was recovering at home.

The man, meanwhile, has a recent travel history that includes “many different locations, including Germany and the United Kingdom,” Alexander-Scott said. He is also recovering at home.

Based on figures provided Tuesday afternoon, 403 people have now tested negative for the virus.

It was not immediately clear how many tests were pending.

Approximately 3,000 people had been asked to self-quarantine as of Tuesday – a figure than includes the nearly 1,700 members of the community at Cranston High School West, where a student tested positive for the virus last week. That student was one of nine new positive tests announced March 13 – the same point at which the governor announced that April vacation would be moved up the week of March 16-20 statewide, with the possibility of longer closures likely.

Raimondo on Monday said that in addition to the new dining restrictions, the state is now prohibiting any event or gathering with 25 people or more.

That step – a significant escalation of previous crowd-size guidelines – came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is calling on all Americans to avoid crowds or gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. It also came as Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who appeared alongside the governor Monday, announced that the Providence Place Mall would be “closed until further notice” starting on March 17.

“I want to be very clear about this. We are directing all Rhode Islanders to avoid nonessential crowds. Eating out is not essential. Getting your hair done is not essential … Hanging out with your friends is not essential. Going to the mall is not essential,” the governor said Monday.

She added: “As I’ve driven around yesterday, I saw 50 or 60 boys playing football together in a field. Shut that down. I drove by the mall and there were far too many people there. Shut it down. It’s not a joke. It’s about keeping yourselves alive and helping us to make sure that our health care system isn’t overwhelmed.”

Alexander-Scott echoed the governor’s sentiment.

“It is critical right now that people not be a part of crowds or gatherings where there are 25 people or more … refrain from engaging in nonessential activities, particularly where there are crowds,” she said. 

She added: “We are looking to stop the spread of illness, and that can only work with everyone participating … We are being very aggressive because this window of opportunity is only open to us once. If we work effectively now, we can decrease how long this goes on for.”

In terms of the new dining restrictions, Raimondo said she would sign an executive order and that it would be effective Tuesday, March 17, through Monday, March 30. It affects “all restaurants, bars, cafes, coffee shops in Rhode Island,” she said.

Drive-thru, take-out and delivery services will be allowed to continue, the governor said. Alexander-Scott said additional guidance for culinary businesses would be forthcoming.

Speaking to restaurant workers, owners, and managers, Raimondo on Monday said: “If you work at a restaurant, you cannot go to work if you’re sick, even if you’re a little bit sick. If you’re tired, if you have a cold, if you have the sniffles, you cannot go to work. Period. And we’re asking restaurant owners and managers to please enforce this.”

She added: “Listen, I know this is brutal. Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day … You are heroic in this effort. It’s going to keep Rhode Islanders safe.”

Raimondo said claims for Unemployment Insurance and Temporary Disability Insurance are “starting to skyrocket.” She said that was expected as the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, and that the Department of Labor and Training has expanded its online capacity to handle an influx of applications.

She added: “Check that it is a COVID-related claim [on an application], and those claims will be expedited.”

During Tuesday’s press briefing, Raimondo announced that the state has been granted an economic injury disaster declaration through the federal Small Business Administration. That makes loans of up to $2 million available for businesses “to pay fixed operating costs through this period until we can return to some sense of normalcy.”

“I think Rhode Island is the first, or one of the first, to apply for this sort of disaster funding. We’re going to work as hard as we can to get this money on the street as fast as we can,” she said Monday.

The governor on Monday also said her administration has been in communication with supermarket chains and advised that shelves will continue to be stocked.

“There’s no need to hoard. There’ll be food,” she said.

Raimondo said residents should continue to shop for groceries, visit pharmacies and banks and go for medical appointments “as absolutely necessary.” She added, however, that people should be careful to avoid “crowds, close contact, extended contact.”

In terms of whether school closures will extend beyond the current week, Raimondo said no decision has yet been made. On Tuesday, she said she anticipated being able to make an announced regarding K-12 education on Wednesday.

“I am hoping to make an announcement around that tomorrow to provide further guidance … I am asking mayors and superintendents to just give us another day,” she said.

She added: “We’re still in the process of working with different school departments to figure out who’s ready for distance learning.

Raimondo said she has activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center and that the state is preparing for a range of scenarios. Possible steps include reopening Memorial Hospital, otherwise expanding hospital space and boosting the number of available health care workers.

“All of this is on the table,” she said.

On Monday, the governor was also critical of the federal response to the crisis, particularly in terms of ensuring necessary medical equipment is available for local efforts.

“We need a better response from the federal government … I am out of patience at this point. I don’t know how to get through to them … We are in OK shape right now, but this is not OK how the federal government is responding to this, and we all need to raise our voices, because these physicians and nurses on the front line need to be protect,” she said.

On Tuesday, she and Alexander-Scott both spoke about the need for federal action on various fronts – from economic stimulus to making additional swabbing kits available to expand COVID-19 testing capabilities. Alexander-Scott said the expansion of testing would be “helpful for us overall as a state to understand the scope of the situation here.”

As of Tuesday, Alexander-Scott said the State Health Laboratories now has capacity to conduct expedited testing for patients who are hospitalized; those living in nursing homes or similar settings; and health care workers, including EMS personnel.

In terms of additional testing, she said: “We have sites that are up and ready to go … But because of these inadequate preparation and because of what every state is experiencing in terms of the back order of swabs, we have to deal with the people that are the highest risk right now.”

Alexander-Scott reiterated previous guidance that testing will not change the advised course of treatment for those whose symptoms are mild or moderate and who are able to recover at home.

Also during this week’s briefings:

lOn Monday, Raimonod announced that the state’s Department of Human Services, Department of Labor and Training and HealthSource RI would move to online and telephone service only until further notice.

lFor the Division of Motor Vehicles, driving tests have been canceled through the week and all satellite offices have been closed. The DMV’s main location in Cranston has temporarily suspended driver’s license and registration services, and expirations of those documents will be extended for 30 days.

Limited services will remain available at the Cranston branch through the week, but “Rhode Islanders are encouraged not to go to the DMV this week unless absolutely necessary,” according to a press release. Starting on March 23, DMV services will be available by appointment only.

l The governor said Tuesday that the state’s unemployment insurance fund is “getting pretty hard right now,” and she urged federal action on economic stimulus to help replenish it. The state has waived the seven-day out-of-work requirement for the assistance and urged affected workers to quickly submit applications online.

“We’re going to pay every claim. We’re going to pay it as quickly as we can,” she said.

lAlexander-Scott on Tuesday called on dental offices to suspend nonessential and non-urgent care for the next 21 days.

lThe health director also advised on Tuesday that the state’s prohibition on large gatherings extends to funerals, wakes and memorial services. While it is a “hard message to deliver,” she said, she spoke of the risks to older people and those with underlying medical issues who are present in larger crowds. She urged mourners to explore other means of participating in services, such as through live streaming.

lAlexander-Scott asked residents to refrain from calling 911 unless necessary to avoid placing additional strain on the health care system during a difficult time.

She stressed, however: “If someone is experiencing a genuine medical emergency … absolutely call 911.”

lRaimondo on Monday signed an executive order “allowing all Rhode Island public entities to conduct meetings online or over the phone and extending the timeline for public records requests,” according to a press release.

“The Attorney General’s Office worked with the Governor’s team and other stakeholders on identifying these appropriate temporary measures for both the Open Meetings Act and the Access to Public Records Act to ensure that government can continue to operate as openly and transparently as possible,” the release states. “The Attorney General’s Office will continue to serve as a resource for guidance and advice regarding these statutes going forward.”

l Raimondo announced Tuesday that Microsoft has agreed to make its Office 365 services available to all Rhode Island businesses free of charge for the next sixth months. The hope is that the tool will make it easier for businesses of all sizes to allow employees to work from home. The governor said additional information is available at or by calling the Rhode Island Commerce Corp. at 521-HELP.

“I want to particularly thank all [businesses] who are allowing your employees to work from home and paying your employees … If you can do it, it’s the best thing to do for your employees, for public health, and for our economy,” she said.