Editor’s note: This story combines news and announcements from Gov. Raimondo’s Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday briefings.
Rhode Islanders will be able to visit a pair of state beaches starting on Memorial Day, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced this week, while the weekend of May 30 has been targeted for a reopening of houses of worship for limited in-person services.
The announcements came as the latest COVID-19 data updates showed a mix of grim milestones and what the governor described as “good news” – and as she continued to stress that social distancing restrictions will remain in place throughout the state’s phased reopening.
“All things considered … I look at that data with confidence that we’re doing the right things, with gratitude that the people of Rhode Island are following the rules,” Raimondo said during Monday’s briefing, held again at The Vets in Providence with members of the media in attendance.
She added: “We’re giving to be living with the virus for, who knows how long … This is it. This is life. And the quicker we just follow the rules and live life this way, the better we’ll all be.”
The governor on Monday also said state officials observed widespread compliance with social distancing and mask-wearing requirements at businesses and state parks over the weekend, which brought warm temperatures and sunshine across Rhode Island.
“I was heartened by the weekend numbers,” she said.
Two state beaches – East Matunuck in South Kingstown and Scarborough in Narragansett – will be open on Memorial Day, Raimondo said Monday, in a nod to the unofficial arrival of summer and the fact that making journeys to the Ocean State’s shoreline is “kind of a part of who we are.”
But as with virtually all aspects of the reopening process, the opening of the beaches will be limited and comes with a number of caveats.
“When I say opening, it is not opening in a way that you would typically think of opening,” the governor said.
Parking spots at the two beaches will be “significantly limited,” although there will be no charge. Bathrooms, showers, changing rooms and concessions stands will be closed, and no lifeguards will be on duty.
Raimondo said the decision to open just two state beaches, rather than all five on a limited basis, stems from the operational constraints and considerations involved. She praised the Department of Environmental Management for its work on the limited beach openings – and for its efforts to reopen all of the state’s parks, including Goddard State Park, as of Monday.
“We want people to go outside, get some fresh air, enjoy nature, enjoy our beaches and parks. But all the rules will apply … stay away from other folks, don’t stay too long,” she said.
Raimondo said the hope is for all state beaches to open, with restrictions, during the second phase of the state’s reopening plan. Additional regulations for the Memorial Day beach openings will be posted at reopeningri.com.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Raimondo has spoken frequently of her own faith and the role church attendance plays in her family’s lives. On Monday, said the current limitations on in-person worship ceremonies have weighed heavily on her.
“We’ve really tried to balance people’s needs and rights to worship with the realities of this public health crisis,” she said.
Raimondo said through consultation with an advisory group consisting of faith leaders from across the state, officials are now targeting the May 30 weekend for the resumption of traditional, in-person services.
The governor provided additional details during her Wednesday briefing, announcing that in-person services will be limited to 25 percent of a particular house of worship’s capacity.
“There will be many other restrictions,” she said, with full details to be posted on reopeningri.com.
The governor said it will be the responsibility of faith leaders to comply with social distancing and safety guidelines to help ensure the health of worshippers.
“I feel relieved and grateful that we were able to come up with this … I’ve come to this decision because I have confidence in faith leaders,” she said Monday.
On Wednesday, Raimondo said communion will be allow as part of the resumption of religious services, although there will be restrictions involved.
Rhode Island marked two grim milestones with this week’s data updates.
On Monday, seven additional reported deaths brought the state’s overall toll to 506 – the first time it has topped 500. Then, on Tuesday, 26 new deaths were announced – the highest single-day increase yet seen. Another six deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the state’s toll to 538.
Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said roughly half of the deaths announced Tuesday occurred in the prior 24 hours, while the rest were from earlier days. She said the laboratory results needed to confirm a COVID-associated death can take time, leading to reporting delays.
Other aspects of the update provided hopeful signs, however. Of the 3,086 new COVID-19 tests included in Wednesday’s update, 209 were positive, marking another day with a single-digit positive rate.
The state’s overall case count now stands at 13,356, while 107,172 of the 120,528 people tested to date have been negative for the disease. Alexander-Scott said the overall case count increased by roughly 200 in Wednesday’s update due to “data cleaning and validation” conducted as part of the state’s switch to a new, updated database, which will allow for more people to access and work with the data simultaneously. The additional cases are spread over the duration of the crisis, she said.
The number of Rhode Islanders hospitalized due to COVID-19 stood at 257 as of Wednesday’s update. Fifty-eight of the hospitalized patients were being treated in ICUs, and 45 were intubated and breathing through a ventilator.
To date, 1,030 people have been discharged from the state’s hospitals following treatment for COVID-19.
New city and town case counts, which have not been updated regularly in the past week due to the database switch, were provided Wednesday and show Providence continuing to have the state’s highest number of cases with 4,290.
It is followed by Pawtucket (1,266), Cranston (759), Central Falls (734), North Providence (649), East Providence (622), Woonsocket (501), Warwick (501), Johnston (296), Cumberland (238), Smithfield (235), West Warwick (224), North Kingstown (211), Coventry (148), Lincoln (133) and Bristol (101).
Raimondo on Monday touted the state’s COVID-19 testing as among the best nationally, and she said a new invitation-only sampling initiative being conducted at several Stop & Shop locations across Rhode Island has seen “very good success.” Through that initiative, randomly selected Rhode Islanders can respond for an appointment at one of the supermarket sites to receive both a diagnostic and antibody testing.
Alexander-Scott noted that the state recently surpassed 100,000 total tests – a figure that represents more than 10 percent of Rhode Island’s overall population.
She and the governor also noted that more work remains, however – particularly given that positive test rates in some communities, particularly those in urban settings, continue to be as high as 20 percent, even as the state’s overall positive rate has fallen.
Alexander-Scott on Wednesday said Central Falls (26 percent), Providence (22 percent), North Providence (18 percent), Pawtucket and Woonsocket (each at 17 percent) continue to see particularly high positive rates. Latinos and African Americans continue to comprise a disproportionate share of the state’s case count, she said, although fatalities to date have been more proportionately experienced across racial and ethnic lines.
Raimondo said the state’s testing plan is focused on three primary objectives – providing quick testing for symptomatic people, quickly responding to outbreaks, and expanding access to all communities.
“We call it SOS – symptoms, outbreaks, surveillance,” she said.
* Raimondo urged hairdressers, barbers and salon workers to participate in a Facebook town hall on Monday afternoon to receive further information and provide feedback as the state works to allow that sector to reopen.
“I hate the fact that we’ve had to shut you down … Having said that, this is a complex one like all close-contact businesses,” she said.
She added: “We want to get there as soon as we can, but we need to get there safely, and frankly, we need to hear from you … It’s not helpful for us to put out rules that you know are impossible to follow.”
Raimondo also said her administration has been in “very close contact” with Connecticut and other neighboring states regarding their plans for hairdressers, barbershops and salons. * Asked about “mixed messages” in terms of mask-wearing requirements for class of 2020 high school and college graduates taking part in virtual or non-traditional ceremonies this spring, the governor said it will be up to local superintendents and educational leaders to follow the “clear guidelines” issued from the Department of Health and Department of Education.
“I cannot be in the business of telling everybody exactly, is this OK, is that OK … The fact is, common sense does have to prevail,” she said.
Avoiding the “rabbit hole of every single hypothetical,” she added: “I think there’s ways to be safe and creative and follow the rules.” * The governor on Tuesday said the state remains on track to reopen child care facilities with restrictions on June 1. As part of the reopening, 50,000 surgical masks will be distributed. “It’s going to be different, but we’re well on our way to enabling it,” she said. * Raimondo said the state continues to expand its outreach to Rhode Island’s communities of color with the assistance of working and advisory groups. She said a full list of participating members of those groups will be available at reopeningri.com, and she asked an communities not yet represented to reach out to state officials.