Troubling COVID-19 trends in other states illustrate “how quickly our fortunes could change” in Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday, offering a “stern” reminder of the importance of continued social distancing and mask wearing.
Despite the developments in other parts of the country, however, the governor pointed to a “winning formula” in the Ocean State that has produced positive trends in the local data – and which officials continue to say puts the state on course to embark on a broader economic reopening in early July.
“If we get complacent … we’re going to be right back where we were at the start of this. And I do see signs that we’re beginning to become complacent,” Raimondo said early in the day’s briefing, pointing to instances of people refusing to wear face coverings, businesses becoming lax with social distancing rules and large crowds gathering at the state’s beaches.
The governor ran through a number of statistics aimed at reinforcing her message about the rapidity with which circumstances could change.
Thirty-three states, she said, now have rolling averages of new COVID-19 cases that are higher than one week ago. Texas and Arizona, she added, have seen their COVID-related hospitalizations nearly double within a matter of weeks, and seven states now have more hospitalized patients that at any prior point during the pandemic. As a result, some governors are putting the brakes on reopening plans in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
By contrast, Raimondo said, 11 of the 15 states that have mandated mask wearing – Rhode Island included – have seen a “continued decline in cases.”
The governor said the “serious” tone of her opening remarks stemmed from her fears of seeing the state’s fortunes change – which, in turn, could force a pullback on the reopening process, a prospect she called “horrible” to consider.
“This is about science. This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about what you might want to do … This is just about the facts,” Raimoindo said.
She added: “This can change quickly. These states [like Arizona and Texas] were in a plateau, and within a matter of weeks, they’re seeing their hospitals filled with COVID patients. I don’t want that to be us. I don’t want to be at this podium telling you the safest place to be is at home.”
Raimondo last week outlined the broad parameters of phase three of Rhode Island’s reopening, which she has said could begin once the executive order governing phase two expires June 29. On Wednesday, she said the still is “still moving forward toward phase three” and that she hopes to have a more formal announcement this coming Monday.
Wednesday’s briefing brought several other announcements related to youth and adult sports, testing and parking at the state’s beaches.
By the numbers
Wednesday’s COVID-19 data update from the Rhode Island Department of Health was another “good news story,” Raimondo said, with favorable trends continuing across the board.
Another 73 positive cases have been identified from a group of 3,531 new tests, representing a positive rate of just 2 percent. To date, 16,606 Rhode Islanders have been found positive for COVID-19 among the 224,994 who have been tested – a positive rate of roughly 7.4 percent.
As of Wednesday, 104 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized as a result of COVID-19, with 20 in ICUs and 16 on ventilators.
The state’s death toll continues to increase, however, with six new deaths bringing the overall number of virus-related fatalities to 912.
The most recent city and town case counts show Providence with the most cases in Rhode Island by far, at 5,628. It is followed by Pawtucket (1,547), Cranston (960), Central Falls (909), East Providence (735), North Providence (735), Woonsocket (639), Warwick (607) and Johnston (443).
New rules for summer sports
Raimondo outlined new phase-three rules for youth and adult sports programs, saying the guidelines will allow for “no-contact and low-contact” games played between “stable groups” with no limit on the overall group size.
Stable groups, the governor said, include the “same players and coaches together over the course of the summer.”
“That matters a lot, because if somebody gets sick, we want to contain it to that stable group,” she said.
Teams will be allowed to play against teams from other parts of the state or outside Rhode Island, provided they are coming from a place with no COVID-related travel restrictions. Spectators will also be allowed, although the governor said those people must wear masks and that the recommendation will be that no more than two spectators per player be permitted.
The rules will not apply to close-contact sports such as basketball and football, the governor said, with participants in those activities urged to stick to drills and scrimmages.
Additional details will be posted at reopeningri.com. The governor also said the rules do not apply to fall school sports, which will be covered during a separate announcement in the weeks ahead.
Parking restrictions to ease at beaches
Starting on Saturday, Raimondo said officials will pilot a new arrangement in which parking capacity limits at state beaches from 50 percent to 75 percent. That represents more than 2,000 additional parking spaces across the beach facilities, the governor said.
Raimondo had previously spoken of issues with large crowds and people being turned away or waiting in long lines at the state beaches over the weekend, a situation she said “wasn’t ideal.”
Questioned why she was moving to allow for additional beach access despite her concerns over a possible shift in the state’s COVID-19 trends, the governor said she does not believe the additional parking capacity will produce crowds any larger than those seen over the weekend. Many people, she said, were parking in neighborhoods and walking to the beaches.
“I don’t actually think that increasing the parking capacity is necessarily going to increase the number of people on the beaches … Really this change, honestly, is just meant to make it a little easier for Rhode Island,” she said.
She added, however: “I’m putting my faith in the people of Rhode Island … I’m a little nervous about this.” She also said she would move to the more restrictive parking capacity at the facilities “in a minute” if she believes it is necessary.
Raimondo also said as part of efforts to ease congestion and lines, the state will no longer sell seasonal passes at its beaches. Those seeking to obtain a seasonal pass are advised to do so online.
The governor additionally urged beachgoers to reserve parking passes in advance at beachparkingri.com, and she said a new tool showing whether lots are at capacity should be available by this weekend at riparks.com/beachpass.
“Bear with us if there are some glitches this weekend, but I think that’s going to help a lot,” she said.
Twin River testing site to close
Raimondo announced Wednesday that the drive-thru COVID-19 rapid testing site at Twin River Casino in Lincoln will cease operations after Saturday, June 27.
“We’ve been planning for this for a while … That was always meant to be temporary,” the governor said, praising CVS and the National Guard for their efforts to make the site possible. She spoke of “very dark days” at the start of the crisis when the state faced serious uncertainty and challenges in terms of expanding testing.
Raimondo said CVS has 10 other drive-thru testing sites throughout the state, with appointments available at cvs.com. Those locations do not use the same Abbott rapid test, meaning results will take days rather than minutes.
The governor said the Twin River location currently conducts a couple hundred people each day, down significantly from its peak. She said statewide, Rhode Island presently has the capacity to conduct roughly 5,000 tests per day and is performing an average of less than 4,000 daily tests.
“We are fully prepared for this … Our testing demand runs well below our capacity at this point as a state, even with the expansion of our asymptomatic testing program,” she said.
She added, however: “If you take one thing away from this press conference, we need to test more people.” She said officials continue to push for expanded testing access in hard-hit communities and areas where residents may experience a lack of access to transportation.
Raimondo and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the Abbott testing systems used at Twin River – which have drawn some scrutiny nationally for lower rates of accuracy than other tests – will be redeployed for the rapid identification of positive cases during outbreaks in high-risk settings, such as nursing homes and other congregate facilities.
Alexander-Scott said the Abbott testing systems at Twin River have identified more than 4,000 positive COVID-19 cases to date. Raimondo acknowledged it is not the “best in class, gold standard, most accurate” testing technology available, but it is a “tool in the toolkit that we’re going to continue to use.”
On another testing note, Alexander-Scott said the positive rate among asymptomatic people who are tested in Rhode Island “continues to be much less than 1 percent.” She said the state is working to improve turnaround times at private labs, where some issues have been experienced.