A recent “small spike” in number of new COVID-19 cases and concerns over the spread of the virus at social gatherings will keep Rhode Island in the third phase of its reopening plan for another month, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a set of benchmarks governing how schools across the state will reopen at the end of next month has been released, along with a schedule that calls for a final decision during the week of Aug. 16.
“We need to get people back to work. We need to allow our children and teachers to get back to school safely. Which means we need to control this virus now,” Raimondo said.
The extension of the governor’s phase three order, which was due to expire Wednesday, involves the continuation of a number of restrictions, including capacity limits for indoor and outdoor settings. As part of the extended order, however, the limit on social gatherings will be lowered from 25 to 15 people.
Raimondo said a “deep dive” by Rhode Island Department of Health officials into the local spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks found clear evidence that social gatherings among 25 or more people who are familiar with one another – backyard barbecues, baby showers, pool parties, even sports banquets – have been a primary driver.
The extensive contact tracing and analysis, she said, identified a number of specific gatherings that were each linked to as many as seven to 10 new cases.
“From here on out, we want to be able to pinpoint what’s driving the increases and pinpoint our response to it … There is one thing in that analysis that is crystal clear – we’re partying to much,” she said.
Raimondo again indicated that people in the 20-30 age group have been a top concern, saying the issues involving social gatherings are “particularly true” for those Rhode Islanders.
With the state’s death toll from COVID-19 having passed the grim 1,000 mark recently, the economic fallout continuing to mount and the return of school rapidly approaching, she reprised a familiar refrain from other points in the crisis in making a new plea for social distancing and mask wearing compliance.
“So if you’re doing this, I need you to knock it off, because people are dying, people are getting sick,” she said, adding: “It’s these kind of social gatherings that are really the problem … We cannot move forward to phase four because of that.”
Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott added: “We are not out of the woods … There is too much transmission going on right now, particularly tied to the social gatherings.”
Extension of phase three; focus on enforcement
Until now, Rhode Island has met the planned timeline for moving into each phase of its reopening plan. Phase three began July 1, representing a much wider lifting of restrictions than in either of the prior two phases.
Raimondo has, at each point, presented four metrics used in determining whether to move between phases – hospital capacity, new hospitalizations, the rate of the virus’s spread and the rate at which hospitalizations double.
The state is presently meeting its goals in three of the four metrics. Less than 10 percent of hospital beds are currently filled, while the average of 15 new hospitalizations ever 30 days is well below the figure of 30 needed to consider a move into a new phase. Hospitalizations have also reached a plateau.
But the rate of the virus’s spread – known as the “R-naught” in medical terminology – has increased of late.
According to Raimondo’s presentation Wednesday, health officials believe Rhode Island’s R-naught is currently 1.3 or 1.4 – meaning that at present, a person who contracts the coronavirus will transmit it to nearly one and a half other people on average. The state’s R-naught had previously dipped below 1, and the benchmark for moving ahead a phase is 1.1 or lower.
Of the increase in Rhode Island’s R-naught, Raimondo said: “We believe that that increase is 100 percent directly attributable to social gatherings that are too large.”
The Department of Health’s COVID-19 data updates have also provided some cause for concern in recent days. Wednesday’s update included just 61 new positive cases and a positive-test rate below 2 percent, but at multiple points in the last week, the number of new cases topped 100. Additionally, the positive-test rate in the update released Tuesday topped 3 percent.
“That’s concerning … It’s not cause for panic, but it’s not what we want to see,” the governor said of the brief uptick.
The subject of social distancing compliance at bars and restaurants again received attention during Wednesday’s briefing, with Raimondo issuing a new warning about an impending crackdown.
Officials continue to see “too many problems with overcrowding in bars,” she said. Of 150 establishments visited by Department of Business Regulation inspections in the past week, she said more than a third did not have sufficient separation in place between staff and customers. A dozen of the cases, she said, involved violations “so egregious” that compliance orders were issued on the spot.
“The grace period is over and we’re going to start getting tougher with enforcement. If you’re not following the rules, we’re going to shut you down. Period,” she said.
Raimondo reiterated that bars, under the phase three guidelines, are effectively required to operate as restaurants, with no service or seating allowed at the actual bar. She also said restaurants that include a bar and are allowing crowding around it have become one of the biggest concerns.
The governor noted that Rhode Island’s restaurants are being allowed to operate at two-thirds of indoor capacity, greater than in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. But she said reducing that threshold is on the table unless compliance improves.
Timeline set for schools decision
For many Rhode Islanders, Wednesday’s updates on the school reopening process likely represented the most anticipated portion of the governor’s briefing.
With the Aug. 31 start date for school just more than a month away, Raimondo outlined a set of criteria that will be used in deciding the degree to which school buildings will reopen.
The five “key focus areas” that will be considered, Raimondo said, are:
* The state’s overall COVID-19 standing and whether it is in either the third or fourth phase of its reopening;
* Municipal-level readiness and data to provide a “very customized, community by community” approach
* The ability of schools to test all symptomatic staff and students and return results within 48-72 hours;
* Whether schools have a “more than sufficient” supply of cleaning materials, soap, hand sanitizer and face masks;
* Overall “operational readiness,” including whether a school’s district has a state-approved plan in place for a variety of contingencies.
“Obviously, children should be learning in school … The question is, what’s it going to take to make it so they can safely be in school?” Raimondo said.
The governor said an advisory panel of medical experts is guiding the state’s approach to schools. Seeking to reassure anxious families and educators, she added: “I’ll tell you this right now, we’re not going to let anyone go back to school in person if it’s not safe.”
She said mask-wearing for students will be required for in-person school attendance, based on feedback from teachers – “Bottom line is, everyone in school should be masked” – and also indicated that at least in the early stages, families will have an option to keep their students home based solely on personal concerns.
“I think so, yes. Certainly initially,” she said when asked directly about the opt-out availability.
Raimondo pointed to the state’s experience with reopening its child care system as evidence that a school reopening is possible. More than 75 percent of the system is currently operational, she said, with nearly 8,000 children and more than 1,000 adult employees involved. In the last two months, she said, there have been only 12 positive COVID-19 cases found in those children and 14 cases among staff. Only one outbreak has occurred, she said, and that was quickly contained.
She also pointed to Rhode Island’s standing relative to other states. The 630 positive cases identified in Rhode Island last week represent 59 new weekly cases for every 100,000 residents, she said. By comparison, in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, that number is more than 300.
Remaining at or below 60 new weekly cases per 100,000 people, the governor said, will position the state well in terms of school reopening.
Raimondo acknowledged the “Herculean” task facing superintendents and local educators, as well as the fiscal and logistical constraints facing the state’s communities. Additional financial support for the school reopening process, she said, will likely be contingent on whether Rhode Island receives more stimulus funding from the federal level.
In terms of a timeline, Raimondo said each district’s multi-tiered reopening plan will be posted online by the end of this week. On Monday, additional guidance on health protocols will be posted for districts.
Raimondo said next week, she will provide additional information regarding testing and transportation for schools. A final decision on how schools will reopen – which it appears will almost certainly be either full distancing learning or a hybrid approach – will come during the week of Aug. 16, the governor said.
The exact nature of the reopening also appears likely to vary by community.
“Flexibility is the name of the game,” Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said, adding: “The metrics outlined by the governor today put health and safety first, as any mother would.”