Editor’s note: This story combines updates from the governor’s daily briefings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
Rhode Island’s restaurants will be able to welcome patrons for limited outdoor dining starting May 18, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Monday, although there will be a host of associated requirements and restrictions.
“It’s top priority of mine to do all that we can to help this industry. Like everything else, it won’t be a flick of a switch,” the governor said during her daily briefing, held for the first time at The Vets in Providence – and, for the first time in many weeks, with reporters in the room to ask questions directly.
Raimondo said there were “no major problems” with social distancing compliance over the past weekend, even as the state’s stay-at-home order expired and non-essential retailers reopened to customers on a limited basis.
While some concerns remain over compliance with a new executive order requiring cloth-based nose and mouth coverings in public – particularly among customers at drive-thru windows, which the governor put at 75 percent based on observations by Department of Business Regulation inspectors – she said the weekend, coupled with “good news” seen in the latest COVID-19 data, provided the “confidence” needed to proceed with the outdoor dining plan, which had been teased last week.
She continued to stress, however, that the reopening process will unfold deliberately in hopes of avoiding any need to backtrack due to a surge in cases.
“Because we’ve really flattened the curve, because we’ve built up our system and have the infrastructure in place to take care of folks, now we’re in a very good position where we can start to slowly reopen our economy, slowly start to go back to work, back to shopping, and feel confident about that … It’s very important, though, that we go slow and we be cautious,” she said.
She added: “Don’t try to fight this. This virus is here, it’s powerful. We don’t have a cure, we don’t have a vaccine … Let’s look to adapt our way of doing things so that we can live safely with the virus. But we can’t try to outrun it, because we know that won’t work.”
A full set of rules and guidelines associated with the outdoor dining allowance was posted online at reopeningri.com late Monday. During her briefing, Raimondo provided an outline of what was included.
Outdoor dining will be available through reservation only, and establishments will be required to maintain a 30-day log of customers and staff for use in any necessary contact tracing.
During Tuesday’s briefing, Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said only people who are a “direct contact” of a positive test will be required to self-quarantine – meaning it is unlikely that a patron would need to quarantine simply because another person who dined at the same establishment tested positive.
Dining parties will be limited to a maximum of five people. Additionally, restaurants will be required to take health screening measures for patrons upon arrival – although there will be no particular method mandated, and the rule can be fulfilled through a step as simple as hanging a poster asking people to self-screen for symptoms.
“Please do not go dining if you feel sick. Actually, you shouldn’t be leaving your house at this point in time if you feel sick,” the governor said.
Regarding the screening requirement – which could range from the self-screening poster up to the administering of temperature checks – she added: “That’s up to the restaurant, but we don’t want anyone who feels sick to be in a restaurant.”
Tables will need to be at least 8 feet apart or, in lieu of that, separated by barriers. No more than 20 tables will be allowed in any outdoor space. Tables and chairs will need to be sanitized between each dining party.
Additionally, traditional menus will not be permitted, with restaurants advised to provide single-use paper menus or use digital or chalkboard menus. The new rules will also require that condiments and utensils be provided on a single-use basis or sanitized between uses.
Alexander-Scott said the wearing of face coverings, which “minimize the chance that respiratory droplets spread between people,” will be included in the outdoor dining plan. Officials are “exploring how we’re going to apply that here,” she said.
“You should be confident going out and going to restaurants for outdoor dining as well as to shops,” Alexander-Scott said. “We want you to be confident, but also not complacent.”
No self-serve food stations will be permitted as part of outdoor dining, and valet service will not be allowed. Cashless and no-contact payment methods will also be encouraged.
Raimondo said at the request of the hospitality industry, DBR and the League of Cities and Towns are working with city and town officials to develop streamlined permitting for outdoor dining and liquor sales. Additional details will be provided in the coming days, she said.
Asked if she plans on dining out after May 18, Raimondo said: “I do … I feel confident enough to do it. I’m going to do it, lead by example, and encourage other people to do it, too.”
Eighteen more Rhode Islanders have as a result of COVID-19, according to Wednesday’s data update from the Rhode Island Department of Health, bringing the state’s overall toll to 462. Alexander-Scott said the new deaths include people from their 50s through their 90s.
An additional 221 Rhode Islanders have tested positive for COVID-19 – a figure that represents just more than 8 percent of the 2,683 new tests reported in Wednesday’s update. The state’s overall case count now stands at 11,835, while 86,087 of the 97,922 people tested to date have been negative.
As of Wednesday’s update, 269 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized due to COVID-19. Of those, 68 were in ICUs and 48 were intubated. Thus far, 886 people have been discharged from the state’s hospitals following treatment for the disease.
“We are moving in the right direction, but we are not out of the woods yet,” Alexander-Scott said Monday.
New city and town case counts were provided Monday for the first time in a week, showing Providence continuing to have by far the most cases in the state with 3,719.
It is followed by Pawtucket (1,114 cases), Cranston (662), Central Falls (615), North Providence (587), East Providence (555), Warwick (446), Woonsocket (427), Cumberland (231), Smithfield (216), Johnston (212), West Warwick (199), North Kingstown (172), Coventry (134) and Lincoln (122).
New municipal-level data had not yet been provided by the Beacon’s Wednesday press time.
* Raimondo on Wednesday announced new initiatives aimed at supporting small businesses through the state’s reopening process.
Starting next week, approximately 500,000 surgical masks and vouchers to obtain disinfectant from Ocean State Job Lot will be distributed to businesses with 50 or fewer employees. The distribution will be done through Chambers of Commerce and professional organizations, and businesses must complete a “COVID-19 Control Plan” – a template for which is available at reopeningri.com – before receiving the masks and voucher.
“It’s kind of a starter installation, just to give you a hand as you begin to learn to operate in this new normal,” the governor said.
Raimondo also announced that Microsoft has donated 500 laptops to assist Rhode Island businesses with 25 or fewer employees. Applications are due May 26, and additional information is available at commerceri.com. * Raimondo on Monday said she expects to have additional announcements soon regarding how federal stimulus funding will be used to provide support for the state’s business community. She said a new form on the reopeningri.com site will soon allow business owners to provide specific feedback and recommendations on how that assistance can best be provided.
“If you’re out there and you’re struggling … the best way we can help you is if you tell us exactly what your needs are,” she said. * In an announcement related to distance learning, Raimondo on Tuesday said the four major cellular service providers – AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint – have agreed to extend free hotspot access in Rhode Island through June 30. “That’ll get every kid through the end of the school year,” she said.
The governor said her administration estimates that 1 or 2 percent of the state’s households remain without internet access, and she urged anyone still in need of access to contact her office, the Rhode Island Department of Education, or their local school or teacher. “We are determined to get to 100 percent,” she said. * Alexander-Scott on Tuesday said that on Monday, the state completed its first round of cyclical testing for residents and staff at all of the state’s 85 nursing homes. Going forward, testing will be conducted in those facilities on an ongoing basis. * Raimondo on Tuesday said $8.2 million earmarked to provide pay raises for front line health care workers earning less than $20 an hour has either been distributed or will be in the days ahead. The funding, which was announced several weeks ago, was designed to stabilize the workforce in congregate care settings such as nursing homes. The governor said the money will provide raises for approximately 10,000 workers at more than 160 facilities. * Asked about reports that additional federal stimulus to help states bridge yawning budget gaps may be delayed several weeks, Raimondo on Monday said she has heard from Trump Administration officials and members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation that an agreement on new assistance is in progress and should be expected within just a few weeks.
If additional aid is delayed, however, the governor said the results would be “devastating” for Rhode Island and other states around the country.
“It is my strong position that Rhode Island absolutely needs another round of stimulus,” she said.
On Tuesday, she elaborated on how the state will address its budget shortfall moving forward. Asked about the likelihood of needing to furlough some state workers to cut costs, she said: “I don’t see a way that we can get through it without it.” * Raimondo on Monday said she expects additional announcements soon in terms of summer camps and youth sports programs. “My goal is to enable as much summer camp and youth sports as possible,” she said. * A number of state parks reopened on a limited basis over the weekend, and the governor on Monday said she intends to continue with a gradual reopening of parks and beaches in the weeks to come.
Asked about city and town parks, she said: “It would be my hope that they would follow our lead … At the end of the day, it’s up to the mayor to do what he or she feels is right for their city.” * Raimondo on Monday said she expects to have additional guidance for faith communities in the weeks to come, specifically focused on allowing for in-person worship to resume. Presently, faith-based gatherings are limited to no more than five people, while there is a 10-person limit for attendance at funerals.
“It’s a couple of weeks away. It’s going to happen in the month of May. And we’re just being cautious,” she said, adding that faith leaders have expressed that “they want to go slow as well.” * Raimondo on Tuesday made a new call for Rhode Islanders to maintain a contact tracing notebook that outlines their daily contacts and places they have visited. “This will save lives. This whole disease is about limiting your network and allowing us to pinpoint where the problems are … Frankly, it’ll allow us to keep reopening the economy,” she said. * The governor on Tuesday also addressed the issue of equity in light of figures that show a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases are among members of the state’s Latino and African American communities. “I am committed to doing better” in terms of outreach and testing access, she said.