Several town buildings closed, school events being evaluated in response to coronavirus

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Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena signed an executive order Monday mandating the closures of several buildings around town and the postponement of all board and commission meetings until further notice.

The order represented the town’s first major response to the novel coronavirus. As of Wednesday afternoon, 33 Rhode Islanders have tested positive and more than 3,000 people are in self-quarantine.

Gov. Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott have taken significant measures over the past week to combat potential community spread of the virus — including moving April vacation for schools to this week and forcing restaurants to eliminate their dine-in options for at least the next two weeks. Raimondo expanded on that edict Wednesday morning, moving to “distance-learning” for schools, closing them until at least April 3.

Raimondo also asked Rhode Islanders to restrict gatherings to 25 or fewer people, echoing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation. Nursing homes have also been closed to visitors until further notice.

Shortly after Raimondo’s order to restrict restaurants to takeout and delivery, Polisena signed his declaration closing the Johnston Senior Center, Johnston Recreational Center and other indoor recreational facilities, Probate Court, Municipal Court and the Marion J. Mohr Memorial Library.

Joseph Polisena Jr. – the Town Council’s vice president and the mayor’s son – posted the executive order to his Twitter account, emphasizing that the changes were “effective immediately” in town.

“We have a new machine, an atomizer, that sprays and it kills all viruses. We’ll do that after we do a physical cleaning and scrub down from ceiling to floor,” Polisena said, explaining the plan for shuttered town buildings. “And the place will be closed, of course, so it will be aseptic. I would love to keep the rec. center open, but I have to think of their health and safety first, as well as that of their parents and grandparents.”

Polisena said Town Hall is still open, but maintenance staff is wiping down door handles every hour, as well as windows and countertops.

While he agreed with Raimondo’s decree, his heart goes out to struggling businesses that will see a sharp decline because of closures.

“Hopefully it will last two weeks and we’re back to business,” Polisena said. “The business end of my brain is concerned about the businesses hanging on by a fingernail. I think with the restaurants being close and only takeout, you’re going to see people at the drive-thru and everything and it will exacerbate the supermarket crisis, where people are buying stuff they won’t need and will never use.”

Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo told the Sun Rise Monday that he and his staff are working on a home instruction proposal to send to the Rhode Island Department of Education. He said that every student has a laptop and the plan would center on using Google Classroom to keep everyone in communication.

DiLullo confirmed Wednesday afternoon that grab-and-go lunches will be available daily from noon to 1 p.m. at Thornton Elementary School and Johnston High School.

“I have not seen anything like this where there was an action take to close schools around a virus,” DiLullo, who has been superintendent for the past decade, said. “Even when we went through the SARS virus and everything, this reaction is much more substantial than what we experienced with those infections.”

DiLullo said a dance at Brown Avenue Elementary School this past weekend had to be cancelled, and the virus could potentially affect other large gatherings across the district. The CDC recommendation reaches into early May, which could impact proms.

DiLullo said he’s currently “looking at” the high school’s June 12 graduation, the date of which could be affected if the CDC expands its guidelines.

“Everybody is just banding together around this health crisis,” DiLullo told the crowd at the School Committee’s March 10 meeting. “Just responding to parents, responding to the cleanliness of the building and having extra people on to make sure the building is clean, educating students regarding regular hand-washing and not touching each other. Keeping their distance. It really does take this whole team to makes sure we’re protecting our students and our staff, and that’s necessary.”

Before many of the severe measures went into effect, at that same meeting, Chairman Bob LaFazia said the district needed to take “a strong look” at dances and other mass gatherings going forward.

“With this coronavirus going on right now, it’s something scary. I’d like to know how many events are going to be going on within the school system, like family dances and all,” LaFazia told those assembled. “I hate canceling anything, don’t get me wrong, because those events are really great, we really enjoy going to them. But that’s something we may have to consider, take a good, hard look at that.”

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