As Rhode Island prepares to enter Phase 3 of reopening, with some eager to return to normalcy as soon as possible, Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon believes the reopening process may be moving a bit too fast.
Navigating a global pandemic is a challenge for any government official. For Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon, it’s a necessity, no matter the cost. When asked in a telephone interview Tuesday whether Gov. Gina Raimondo was reopening the state too quickly, Solomon’s response was cautious. He said that reopening depends heavily on the public’s participation - or lack thereof.
“I think that anyone’s leadership is based on the reliance and faith of the general public, hoping that the general public’s going to do the responsible thing when it comes to lifestyle,” Solomon said. “You’re hoping that people are going to adhere to those requirements, which set the parameters in each one of these phases. And if people don’t set that parameter, then you will see a spike, and if a vaccine is not found, this fight can be even more detrimental to the economy and society than the initial onset of the virus.”
Solomon shut down in Warwick in March due to COVID-19, making it the first city in the state to do. Solomon believes that reopening efforts may not be fully worth it until COVID-19 is completely under control.
“I feel frustrated, but I know the majority of people feel frustrated that life is not like it used to be,” Solomon said. “And I think we won’t see life as it was until a vaccine is discovered.”
The city’s initial shut down wasn’t an easy decision, however. Solomon acknowledges the economic downturn that mass shutdowns due to the virus created. Particularly, he got pushback from his decision to close the Warwick Mall in March.
“It’s a decision that really you have to make on the spot,” Solomon reflected. “You’ve got to live with the consequences, both good and bad.”
But Solomon stands by his position. When a photo of a crowded Block Island Ferry full of people not wearing masks went viral last week, Solomon immediately braced for the worst.
“When I see things like that, when I see more traveling and the nonchalant attitude that this thing is going away I get a little apprehensive,” Solomon said. “You look at Florida, you look at Arizona, where I think there’s a shortage of hospital beds. Look at the map throughout the country. Look at New York, Governor [Andrew] Cuomo is ready to sort of reverse [reopening] if things keep heading in the opposite direction.”
For this story, Solomon spoke with the Warwick Beacon for the first time in three months over the phone, not in-person, during a 40-minute interview. He has yet to dine indoors at a restaurant since state restrictions relaxed, but he says he’s been getting takeout. And although he misses meeting with his mother, he prioritizes her safety first.
“We’ve been keeping her pretty much bunkered up and just, you know, spending a lot of time at home,” “Because of the number of people I see, I don’t want to bring anything harmful to her. I talk to her twice a day, so that works out well. But that’s a difficult thing, not being able to see your mom.”
This concern is reflected in some of Solomon’s policies regarding public buildings. City offices such as the Building Department, the Board of Canvassers, City Clerk, Community Development, Economic Development office, Planning Department, Tax Assessor’s office and Tax Collector’s office have been open to the public on an appointment-only manner for months, with no plans to reopen until July 1.
“I was hoping by this time that things would be even further along in a positive direction, but with protocols, you’re gonna have to choose activities to resume only to keep the system going,” Solomon said.
The city’s $323.5 million no tax increase budget passed unanimously earlier this month, but at the cost of eliminating 39 municipal positions and no new training for firefighters. There is also uncertainty of certain tax revenues from industries like hospitality, travel and food and beverage since no one knows how the virus will affect the future economy. During budget hearings earlier this month, Solomon said he hoped layoffs would be temporary, and that the economy bounces back.
With the budget adopted, Solomon hopes that tax bills won’t be delayed as well.
“We have adopted our budget and our tax bills will go out,” “They may be delayed, they might not be delayed. That all depends on how far along the state is in the process. The first quarter is a certain time, but technically speaking, taxes aren’t due until technically Sept. 15.”
On top of juggling COVID-19 related matters, Solomon has another challenge to consider: reelection. Solomon’s campaign platform features his trademark promise to create budgets that don’t increase taxes. He is also advocating for increased road paving, opening the Buttonwoods Center and improving parks and recreation.
“Efficiency, being able to run this city with a limited crew the way we did the last three and a half months without skipping a beat, I think speaks for itself,” Solomon said. “I can tell you in the past, we have been able to not streamline, but get more for the buck, get more for less.”