Pandemic, election and other top stories from the year that was

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It was already set to be a whirlwind year in 2020. An election season was upon the country and the Senate was set to begin its removal hearings after the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump.

Then March came, and time slowed down while normal life ground to a halt. The coronavirus pandemic washed over Rhode Island throughout the spring before bringing another tsunami in the fall. Businesses closed down, holidays were effectively canceled, seeing loved ones was put on hold and everyone had to adjust to a new way of living. “Social distancing” entered the lexicon, folks started their own personal mask collections and, in record time, multiple vaccines were developed to stave off the virus as 2021 ushers in a bit more hope.

The year saw its fair share of momentous stories in Johnston – both touched and untouched by the pandemic – and this piece will reflect on what made the biggest headlines in town. Coronavirus arrives in Johnston, town and schools calibrate

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s March decision to shutter restaurants and bars for dine-in service was a watershed moment in 2020, as towns and cities around the state began to enact their own policies to combat the newly arrived coronavirus.

In a Sun Rise article dated March 19, Mayor Joseph Polisena announced an executive order mandating the closures of several town buildings, as well as the immediate postponement of local board and commission meetings. The next Town Council meeting would not take place until May. The story was published when Rhode Island only had 33 positive cases and the number of folks in self-quarantine was still being tracked.

Polisena spoke proudly, though, in that interview and future discussions that the town never fully closed. Town Hall remained open by appointment, and strict cleaning measures were put into place.

“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.”

Johnston schools, like the rest of the state’s learning institutions, moved to distance learning for a couple of weeks at first before extending virtual instruction for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. During the last in-person School Committee meeting on March 10 prior to the shutdown, the board was still examining large gatherings like dances and graduation.

“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,” School Committee Chair Bob LaFazia said. “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.”

Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo would tell the Sun Rise that the response to COVID-19 was unlike anything he had seen in his career.

“Everybody is just banding together around this health crisis,” DiLullo said at the 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.”

Johnston has now seen 2,854 residents test positive, and the town has the second-highest rate in the state. Its 21 percent positivity rate places it ahead of Pawtucket, Cranston and Providence, and trails only Central Falls at 28 percent. Johnston schools adjust to distance learning, return to action

The Sun Rise spent several issues this year tracking the school district’s move to distance learning, a new method which DiLullo praised teachers and students for picking up rather quickly.

DiLullo told the Sun Rise for an April 2 story that the district had worked with 1-to-1 learning for some time, as every student was assigned a laptop. He said it put the town “ahead of the curve” in being prepared for the crisis.

“It’s obviously a new way to deliver instruction,” DiLullo said. “Our teachers have been in contact with our students using the Google Classroom suite. Then some of them are using Zoom features as well, where they can interact with students face-to-face. Students are glad to see their teachers. They’re able to see them in real time. Some teachers are recording their lessons so students can go back to them at home while they’re doing work on their own.”

The town successfully completed the school year from a distance, but the summer brought new challenges. The Rhode Island Department of Education set a return date of Aug. 31 for in-person learning to potentially resume, but would not approve school reopening plans until only two weeks prior. RIDE would eventually postpone returns until mid-September, when every district save for Providence and Central Falls were cleared for full in-person learning.

Whether instruction was in the classroom or not, DiLullo warned in June that it wouldn’t look the same. He spoke of “nursing suites” to treat and isolate students who felt ill, as well as having masks available and setting up socially distanced hallways and classrooms.

“School is not going to be like it used to be. School is going to be different,” DiLullo said. “It could be lunch in classrooms as opposed to cafeterias, in smaller groups rather than larger-sized groups. It could be that we operate in pods where students stay with a particular group throughout the whole day and teachers move.”

The schools have been able to keep their case numbers relatively low since learning resumed in September. Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School has reported between 25 and 29 cases since Sept. 14, while Johnston High School has had 20 to 24.

Winsor Hill School has seen between 10 to 14, Sarah Dyer Barnes has reported five to nine positive tests and Thornton Elementary School and Brown Avenue Elementary School have fewer than five. The Early Childhood Center and Graniteville School have reported no in-person cases.

Only Ferri, JHS and Winsor Hill have seen more than five staff cases cumulatively since the year began.

JHS has 20 to 24 cases among distance learners, while Ferri has reported 10 to 14. Both Winsor Hill and Brown Avenue have reported five to nine.

Johnston moved to distance learning for the remainder of 2020 in mid-December as the coronavirus raged across the state yet again. As the district closed out the year, staffing levels remained a concern.

““I think you’re seeing across the state many districts closing buildings,” DiLullo said in a Nov. 20 Sun Rise story. “We’re all experiencing those kinds of issues in our district where we don’t have enough staff. The task of doing the investigative work is really becoming heavy on our administrators. If some people have administrators out because of the virus and that’s another stress on the district, so there’s a lot in terms of whether or not this is going to be sustainable, particularly as we get through the holiday season.” Graduation takes on a new look

With large indoor gatherings prohibited for the foreseeable future, Johnston and numerous other municipalities around the state had their hands full with graduation ceremonies.

Despite the vast challenges, the town still gave its class of 2020 a fond farewell, with a police-and-fire-led parade down Atwood Avenue and into the parking lot of FM Global. Students and their families enjoyed a taped commencement once the sun set, as a few screens were erected to project the video so everyone could see.

DiLullo, valedictorian Madisyn Turcotte and salutatorian Carlos Fragoso all gave speeches, and Principal Dennis Morrell spoke warmly about the students who had been through so much.

“You are no longer the unsure 11- or 12-year-old,” Morrell said. “You are now mature young men and women, prepared and ready for your next adventure … I feel that I am not only your principal, your mentor, your role model or adviser, but I am like your dad. I’m your school dad. And as your school dad, it’s been my job, not only to ensure that you are earning the requisite about of credits and knowing how to write a paragraph, multiply fractions or muddle through a foreign language.”

Fragoso’s speech sought to bring some laughs from those inside their cars for the duration of the ceremony when he welcomed all “ladies, gentlemen and motor vehicles” to the evening.

“I believe that it’s our duty to spend as much of the little time that we’re allotted doing something we love, and if we’re going to spend the majority of our lives working or preparing to work, we should spend those years doing something we enjoy,” he said. “It’s a tragedy to see someone trudging through a job that they hate for 30 or 40 years. You’re spending the majority of the small amount of time you are gifted working, and by throwing away those important years you’re throwing away most of your life.”

Turcotte thanked her family and support system at the school, while adding the ceremony wasn’t ideal, “its significance has not been diminished.”

““As the members of this graduating class continue to grow into productive members of society, to learn the difficult lessons which life has to offer, and to pave our paths in the world, I can say with the utmost certainty that we shall carry with us the invaluable memories and experiences we gained as students at Johnston Senior High School,” Turcotte said. “While the success which we are celebrating today would not have been possible without the graduating class of 2020’s tremendous amount of hard work, we would certainly not be here today without the help of our dedicated teachers, faculty, and staff at Johnston Senior High School.” Encompass Health application approved

Just before the pandemic took hold in Rhode Island, the state’s Health Services Council approved the certificate of need application for Encompass Health – setting the stage for a potential 50-bed inpatient rehab facility in Johnston.

In-person board meetings in packed rooms at the Department of Health consumed the opening months of the year, as testimony from both sides argued for and against the necessity for Atlanta-based Encompass making its foray into the Ocean State.

During a February meeting, Kent Hospital President and CEO Robert J. Haffey foresaw layoffs at existing hospitals and facilities if Encompass was approved. Rehabilitation Hospital of RI CEO Michael Souza said the state already has plenty of beds to accommodate existing need.

Hospital Association of Rhode Island President Teresa Pavia Weed was also a staunch opponent of the project.

“The only possible interpretation is this will increase the cost of health care in our state,” Paiva-Weed said. “The impact of viability, what to us is the single-most important provision in this report … A decline in patient volume across existing providers may threaten the viability of these providers.”

Despite the resistance, the council ultimately approved the application, 3-2. It remained on the desk of DOH Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott until she signed off late in the summer.

In response to the initial approval, Polisena said it was a “very good day” for Johnston and that those challenging the application were worried about competition.

“I’m glad Encompass is coming to Johnston,” he said in March. “I wasn’t surprised. I believe there is a need … I think it is great for the town. I think it puts us on the map in terms of having a premier rehab center in the state coming to Johnston … Competition is good, especially for the people that use the services for rehab they may need.”

Polisena said in August that he first heard of Dr. Alexander-Scott’s approval via a text message from his son, and he was “very excited” to hear the news.

““I think it’s great for the town, but as I said before, I’m speaking not only as a mayor but as a registered nurse,” Polisena said in August. “I think it’s great for the state, it’s a very good company. I know other hospitals have some issues with it but I think it’ll all work out and I know nobody likes competition but it’s going to be fine.” Chief Tamburini retires; Razza, Vieira promoted

Shockwaves were sent through the local and law enforcement communities when Johnston Chief of Police Richard Tamburini announced his retirement after more than five decades of service.

The Sun Rise first reported the news in June. Tamburini had served as the leader of Johnston’s police force since 1995, spearheading and championing several local programs such as Walk With Cops and the Johnston Police Explorers Program.

He is a member of the Rhode Island Criminal Justice Hall of Fame and previously served in the U.S. Army’s 72nd Signal Battalion before his time with the Providence Police Department. The Sun Rise ran an entire special section in tribute to Tamburini, and kind words about him were said all around the state.

A ceremony was held in August to install Chief Joseph Razza and new Deputy Chief Mark Vieira, as members of the Johnston Police and other departments gathered for a socially distanced ceremony in the Johnston High School auditorium.

“As you approach your retirement, you should consider my promotion another achievement in your long and distinguished law enforcement career,” Razza, a 22-year JPD veteran, said to Tamburini at the ceremony.

He continued: “I am not here to reinvent the law enforcement wheel, I am here to enhance it. These are challenging times in law enforcement, but together we will meet these challenges head on, promote the very best law enforcement concepts and practices to meet these new challenges, and in the end we will set the bar for all others to follow.”

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, Mayor Polisena, Attorney General Peter Neronha and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee all spoke glowingly of Razza and Vieira. Reed noted that Vieira, who was previously a captain, had been “exemplary” in that capacity.

“He’s done it again with the dedication and determination that distinguishes him as an outstanding police officer,” Reed said of Vieira. “He has led the way in so many different ways, not only as a police office but as a mentor to other police officers.”

Polisena, an unflinching supporter of the JPD, noted during the ceremony that he would never considering defunding the department. He went as far to say the town would withhold mutual aid from neighboring towns and cities that slashed police budgets.

“Promotion just isn’t a pay raise, it’s a huge responsibility,” Polisena said. “As leaders, they become role models for those they supervise. They become trusted confidantes for those that they lead. Their decisions for the department become crucial for the day-to-day operations of the safety of the members, but also the citizens over which they serve.” Johnston Democrats coast to reelection; Cardillo survives recount

A somewhat heated election season in Johnston brought few surprises as several incumbents breezed to reelection.

House Dist. 42 State Rep. Stephen Ucci (D), who has held his seat since 2004, made headlines when he announced he would not run for another term, endorsing Edward Cardillo Jr. to take his spot. Republican Frank Ricci opposed him in the general election, running a Trump-style campaign to make “Rhode Island great again.”

Their margin was one of the slimmest in the state, with Cardillo leading Ricci by just fewer than 100 votes when all of the in-person, mail and early ballots had been tallied. Ricci filed for a recount, which changed the result very little.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think it would change much in the recounts,” Cardillo said in a phone interview after the recount was completed. “They didn’t change much. The machines are very accurate. Really, the machines don’t make mistakes today. Of course I feel relieved about it with the recount done.”

Elsewhere, Dist. 43 State Rep. Deborah Fellela (D) defeated Republican challenger Nick Grasso by 16 points, but Grasso had one of the best performances against Fellela for an opponent in a decade.

“It feels great,” Fellela said after her victory. “I’m happy to be back. I want to thank all the folks who supported me. I think they knew who to vote for, and as I told you before I’m part of the community and I think they know that and I try to get things done for them.”

Incumbent Dist. 44 State Rep. Gregory Costantino (D) ran unopposed, and Ramon Perez won back his Dist. 13 seat after withstanding incumbent Mario Mendez and fellow challenger Janice Falconer. Tiana Ochoa launched a write-in campaign, but Perez won 80.6 percent of the general election vote.

Incumbent Dist. 22 State Sen. Stephen Archambault (D) scored a victory over Republican Paul Santucci and independent Stephen Tocco. Archambault carried 50.6 percent of the vote to Santucci’s 42.2, while Tocco took 7 percent.

“I congratulate Paul Santucci on the good and positive campaign he ran,” Archambault said after earning another term. “ I thank the voters of the 22nd district – residents of portions of Johnston and North Providence and all of Smithfield – for their faith in me and pledge to continue to work hard on their behalf.”

Dist. 25 State Sen. Frank Lombardo III (D), despite running unopposed, received the most votes – 10,653 – of any local or national politician on the ballot.

The only contested Town Council seat was in District 5, where Robert Civetti defeated independent James Florio Jr. by 20 points. Civetti said it was a victory for moderate politics.

“I appreciate the support of the taxpayers who went out here and vote for me and voted for the candidate and not necessarily the party think there some indeicsion as to what the Democratic Party is these days,” Civetti said. “What I consider middle-of-the-road Democrats versus socialist Democrats. I think we saw in District 5 there were a lot of people upset with the fighting at the federal level with the Democrats.”

President and District 4 representative Robert Russo, Vice President and District 3 representative Joseph Polisena Jr. and District 1 representative Linda Folcarelli all ran unopposed for another term. Lauren Garzone did not have an opponent for her bid to replace David Santilli Jr. in the vacant District 2 seat.

School Committee Chair Robert LaFazia, Vice Chair Joseph Rotella and District 3’s David Santilli all won new terms without challengers. Polisena Jr. announces mayoral intentions

As one election season ended, another began in its wake.

In late November, Mayor Joseph Polisena – whose final term will end in 2022 – mentioned in an interview with the Sun Rise that it’s “no secret” his son, Joseph Polisena Jr., will seek his chair next election cycle.

After a Sun Rise reporter tweeted the news, Polisena Jr. reached out to confirm his father’s suspicions and spoke the next day with the paper. Amid some criticism about a family handoff of administrations, Polisena Jr. said he’s looked up to his father as an inspiration. There’s even a picture in the elder Polisena’s office of his son at the Senate chambers when he was a child.

“[Everyone has] someone that they looked up to personally or professionally and even jobs that don’t include politics,” Polisena Jr. said. “A lot of people who are firefighters, their father was a firefighter, [and in the] nursing field, teaching field. A part of who you are is who raised you and who you grew up with. The big thing I think people will find is just because you look up to someone, it doesn’t mean you’ll walk in lockstep with them.”

Polisena Jr. acknowledged that he and his father take different approaches on the issues. Polisena said he thinks his son would “make a great mayor” and called him the “ideal candidate” for the job.

“My son, obviously he’s been asked by several people in the town that, ‘When your father leaves, why don’t you run,’ and so forth,” Polisena said. “I’m the kind that will jump over my desk and scream and yell when I fight for my residents. He’s got a different attitude … he’s firm and he’s a smart kid, and he grew up with it and he knows the importance of making sure that you represent all of the people, all of the time and the importance of holding the line on taxes. That’s key. I would love to see him, obviously, in my seat. He would obviously continue to carry on the policies that we created over the 16 years.” Vaccine arrives in RI

Ending the year with some positive news, both Pfizer and Moderna announced that their coronavirus vaccines had between 94 and 95 percent efficacy rates.

Mayor Joseph Polisena told the Sun Rise he would volunteer to administer vaccines, much like he did during the H1N1 epidemic several years ago. A nurse by trade, he said he would have no hesitation receiving the inoculation.

“This country’s not going to put out something that’s going to poison their population, that’s for sure. Will there be reactions? I’m sure there will be, but most of the reactions – the same thing with the flu shot, some people say, ‘I caught the flu,’ which is not true,” Polisena said in November. “That’s an old wives’ tale. You don’t catch the flu from getting the flu shot. Your immune system might have been low at the time, but they give you antibodies to fight off the flu.”

As the first shots were given out in Rhode Island this December, Polisena told the Sun Rise he wanted to see first responders given higher priority. He said their close proximity to people with the virus should put firefighters, rescue workers and police officers on the same level of need.

“They’re all subject to taking care of COVID patients,” Polisena said in December. “Many years ago when I was on the fire department and I was the rescue coordinator, we were the first fire department to send a fire truck with a rescue, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. Anybody that called saying, ‘My husband’s having chest pains,’ anybody who has had a stroke or is unconscious, we always send a fire truck.”

He said firefighters are exposed to between eight and 10 people with coronavirus every day, and if all the rescues at a station are already dispatched, fire trucks are sent in their stead to an emergency.

“I believe the vaccinations should be offered to all firefighters throughout the state, including volunteer firefighters as well as obviously the full-time firefighters,” Polisena said. “I’m hoping that they do that, and I’m hoping that the state sees fit to say that we’ve got to take care of the first responders because, listen, the hospital people are very, very, very important, but most people don’t get to the hospital unless they get in by rescue.”

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