Rhode Island is at a “turning point” in its fight to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday – and “much more restrictive rules” could be on the way if the small but significant spikes seen in recent COVID-19 case counts are not controlled in short order.
Raimondo’s warning came after several states in the region, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, imposed new travel restrictions on Rhode Islanders.
She framed that development as a “wake-up call for the people of Rhode Island that we need to do better” rather than a cause for “panic,” but used stark, direct language in terms of what it is at stake in terms of school reopening plans and the state’s economy.
“I’m trying not to freak people out … For a while, we had a real emergency. Didn’t have enough ventilators, didn’t have enough hospital rooms. We’ll get there again if we don’t follow the rules,” she said while responding to a question from WPRI’s Kim Kalunian toward the end of her weekly coronavirus briefing.
She continued: “Right now, the problem that I worry more about is having to close restaurants and bars. Having to say all the kids are distance learning. Because that would, that’s terrible, it’s devastating. And it’s unnecessary … I keep saying, ‘What do I have to do to get Rhode Islanders to follow the most basic rules?’ Do you know how frustrating it is that there’s still so many pool parties and backyard barbecues and wedding showers and just community gatherings of 30 people? Go tell that to the guy on Block Island who’s about to lose his business. Like, come on, people. Be a little considerate. How hard is it to wear a mask? How hard is it to stick with 15 people so that those people can have their livelihood?”
Wednesday’s briefing brought several announcements, including new restrictions for out-of-state visitors, a new limit on operating hours for bars and plans for stepped-up enforcement of social gathering limits.
It also brought news of expanded asymptomatic testing availability for younger Rhode Islanders, as well as a new agreement with two laboratories that Raimondo said will significantly expand the state’s COVID-19 test processing capacity while reducing wait times for results.
Perhaps the most closely watched issue for many Rhode Islanders – when, and how, schools will reopen at month’s end – was discussed at some length during the briefing, although there were no changes to Raimondo’s previously announced schedule that calls for a decision during the week of Aug. 16.
Officials did say, however, that based on one of the key metrics that will be used in making the call – the prevalence of the virus at the individual community level – three districts, Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket, would not be able to open their schools for in-person learning based on the figures from last week.
“We’re not going to force any parent to send their child to school. It’s parental choice … Every school will have distance learning options,” Raimondo said, adding: “We’re working for the best, planning for the worst.”
Rhode Island garnered unwanted attention this week as a handful of states throughout the region placed new restrictions on travelers from the Ocean State.
For New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, that means visitors from Rhode Island must quarantine for 14 days if they intend to spend more than 24 hours at their destination. Massachusetts is also requiring a 14-day quarantine, or in lieu of that, a negative COVID-19 test from the 72 hours preceding their arrival.
Raimondo initially said she sees some benefits coming from the restrictions – “The less we’re all traveling, the better … Staying close to home is still the name of the game while we’re fighting the virus” – but in her remarks and while answering reporters’ questions, she was quick to acknowledge the economic toll of the Ocean State being seen as a potentially risky place to dine or vacation.
Raimondo and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott did say the state views the test-positive rate for Rhode Island being used as the basis for the travel restrictions as an inaccurate representation of the state’s standing.
The discrepancy between the state’s internal figures and those compiled by outside media outlets, academic institutions and other organizations stems from a difference in methodology. In short, Rhode Island uses total tests to calculate its test-positive rate, while other entities exclude re-tests. Officials have also said Rhode Island is one of the few states to delineate new tests and re-tests in its reporting, which leads to unequal comparisons with other states.
“Our numbers are not being compared accurately,” Alexander-Scott said, and officials are working to address that situation.
Regardless, the test-positive rate has become a key consideration in policy decisions such as the new travel restrictions on Rhode Islanders.
Raimondo on Wednesday also announced a new requirement for out-of-state visitors coming to Rhode Island. She and Alexander-Scott said an analysis of the state’s data found roughly 12 percent of the recent positive cases are linked to travel to places like Florida, the Midwest and other parts of New England.
Starting Sunday, people arriving at local hotels or rental properties from states with a test-positive rate of 5 percent or higher will be required to sign a “certificate of compliance” attesting that they will self-quarantine for 14 days or have produced a negative test from the 72 hours preceding their arrival. If they decline, those visitors will have to be turned away, the governor said.
Raimondo said the new requirement is based on a similar approach being utilized in Maine.
“It’s working very well there … We’re going to learn from a successful strategy and we’re going to put that in place here,” she said.
Raimondo also said members of the National Guard and Department of Health staffers will be deployed at T.F. Green Airport and the train station in Providence to help inform visitors of the quarantine or negative test requirement.
In an effort to assist people who have already made travel plans for the coming weeks, Raimondo also said that starting Wednesday, an expedited testing option will be available for out-of-state travelers through the portal.ri.gov website. That testing will be conducted at the Rhode Island Convention Center site, she said, and results will be available within 24 to 48 hours.
Bars and social gatherings
Raimondo again zeroed in on bars as a source of concern for health officials, and she announced a new restriction requiring such establishments to close after 11 p.m. starting on Friday. Restaurants with bar areas will be allowed to remain open past that time but must close the bar section at that point.
“We continue to see that bars are a problem … You see it clearly in the data,” she said, adding that state inspectors found 20 percent of bars visited over the weekend found a lack of adequate separation between staff and customers.
Raimondo said she “won’t hesitate” to order bars close if needed but that she wanted to first pursue a “middle of the road” approach.”
“We have been bending over backwards to keep the bars open,” she said.
As part of her continuation of the third phase of the state’s reopening plan, Raimondo last week announced a reduction of the social gathering limit from 25 to 15 people. On Wednesday, she said the state is still “struggling to keep social gatherings under control.”
She and Alexander-Scott said municipal leaders and community volunteers are being asked to assist in the enforcement of distancing and gathering rules. She announced a new hotline, 764-5554, that residents can use to notify Rhode Island State Police of large gatherings. And she warned that people found at a gathering of more than 15 could face fines of up to $500 each.
“Figure out who your 15 people are going to be … Stick to that group, please,” she said.
Alexander-Scott said people in the 20 to 39 age range “continue to be a challenge in terms of the cases that we are seeing.” She urged members of that group to “take responsibility for their actions” and engage more fully in mask wearing.
As part of the focus on younger Rhode Islanders as drivers of COVID-19’s spread, Raimondo announced that effective immediately, people between the ages of 18 and 39 who are asymptomatic can schedule tests at portal.ri.gov.
Alexander-Scott cautioned that a negative test represents “just one point in time,” but she said repeat testing is being promoted.
“We encourage people to go frequently. You can go as often as you want to go and get tested,” she said.
Most significant on the testing front, however, was Raimondo’s announcement of a new agreement the state has reached with Accu Reference Medical Lab and Dominion Diagnostics.
As the coronavirus has surged in other parts of the country, reports have increasingly emerged of Rhode Islanders waiting up to a week or more for test results. Raimondo called that “totally unacceptable,” even in the face of a “fierce fight for [testing] resources all around the country.”
Under the agreement announced Wednesday, Raimondo said, both Accu Reference and Dominion will process 1,000 tests per day with a guaranteed turnaround time of 48 hours starting next week. Next month, Dominion will expand its capacity to 7,000 with the same turnaround time.
“[This will] massively expand our testing capacity … They have guaranteed it. It’s in the contract. This is a big win,” the governor said.
She added: “Testing within 48 hours is a key piece of the puzzle if we’re going to get kids back to school safely … It’ll help us I think really keep a lid on the virus.”
Focus on schools
Raimondo on Wednesday said the state has determined that one of the key metrics that will be used in school reopening decisions – the spread of the virus at the city and town level – will utilize 100 new cases per 100,000 cases as a threshold.
Based on that, she said, Central Falls (186 cases per 100,000 residents, based on last week’s data), Pawtucket (135) and Providence (103) would not be allowed to open their school buildings if the academic year began this week.
“The rest of the state would be cleared for full in-person,” she said.
Raimondo again said a decision on school reopening – which will likely vary by community – will come during the week of Aug. 16. She said the Department of Education continues to work with local leaders to develop “robust in-person plans and robust distance learning plans” for each school and district.
The governor praised several districts, including Tiverton, Smithfield, Scituate and Smithfield, for development “excellent plans for full, in-person learning in a way that’s safe.”
“They’ve really leaned into surmounting all of the many challenges,” she said.
Education Commission Angelica Infante-Green also said “a lot of creativity” has been seen during the planning process.
“This is about getting it right … I think the name of the game as we move forward is flexibility,” she said.
Alexander-Scott said her department is working in “extremely close partnership” with RIDE.
“The best support for our economy, for our society, for our children, is getting our schools back and going,” she said.
Full district-by-district school reopening plans can be found at backtoschoolri.com.
By the numbers
Thursday’s Department of Health data update showed 110 new cases of COVID-19 in Rhode Island, a positive-test rate of 2.2 percent based on 5,087 tests. The state’s total case count now stands at 19,611.
Two more COVID-related deaths were reported, bringing Rhode Island’s overall toll to 1,014.
Eighty-three Rhode Islanders were hospitalized as a result of the virus on Wednesday, with 11 being treated in ICUs.