Joining Massachusetts in another unprecedented step meant to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Gina Raimondo on Monday announced that dine-in service at restaurants, bars and other establishments will be prohibited for the next two weeks.
“This is a serious step because we’re confronting a serious crisis,” the governor said.
Meanwhile, as the state’s number of COVID-19 diagnoses rose to 21, Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott announced that for the first time, officials consider community spread of the virus to be underway in Rhode Island.
“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 case – the first announced since Friday – was identified as a woman in her 40s. She is said to be hospitalized in stable condition. Alexander-Scott said an investigation into that patient’s chain of infection remains ongoing.
Based on figures provided Monday afternoon, nearly 500 Rhode Islanders had thus far been tested for COVID-19 – the 21 positive cases, along with 308 who tested negative and another 149 for whom results were pending.
Approximately 2,300 people had been asked to self-quarantine – 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 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 – comes 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, announced that the Providence Place Mall would be “closed until further notice” starting on March 17.
Following the declaration from Elorza, Warwick Mayor Joseph J. Solomon issued an executive order at 3 p.m. Monday to suspend common area operations in all city malls indefinitely. Any stores with direct street access are not affected and the order is in effect as of Tuesday at 8 a.m.
“I’ve received numerous complaints or information of individuals being dropped off at the mall in groups of young people congregating,” Solomon said.
“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.
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 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.”
The governor additionally said she will request an “economic injury disaster declaration” for Rhode Island through the federal Small Business Administration. Doing so, she said, is designed to help make loan-interest loans available to 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.
The governor 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.
“I would just ask you to hang on a day or two,” she said.
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.
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.
Raimondo and other state leaders were scheduled to host an additional media briefing on Monday afternoon as the Beacon prepared to go to press.
During the morning briefing, she hinted the later announcement would focus on the state’s approach to other public spaces of concern, including the Division of Motor Vehicles.