More than a week into the third phase of its reopening plan, Rhode Island continues to see favorable signs in its COVID-19 data.
New cases, along with virus-related deaths and hospitalizations, continue to hold steady or decline locally, even as other parts of the country are experiencing dramatic spikes in case counts and seeing hospital beds rapidly fill.
“I hope you look at this and maybe breath a sigh of relief … We continue to trend in the right direction,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said during her daily briefing on the crisis Wednesday, her first after the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
She added: “We had a lot on the line this weekend … and by and large, I feel good about what we saw.”
The positive trends locally have led officials to announce new visitation allowances for nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals – a long-awaited development for Rhode Islanders who might not have seen older or sick loved ones in months.
But the loosening of restrictions will also come with a ramping up of the state’s enforcement efforts when it comes to mask wearing, social distancing and cleaning protocols at businesses, Raimondo said. Bars, in particular, remain a source of concern, according to the governor.
“There are those of you out there, and you know who you are, who aren’t even trying … and we’re going to crack down on you,” she said.
New enforcement push
Raimondo on Monday said she had been anxious about the Fourth of July weekend, given the possibility for large crowds. She said, however, that state officials and inspectors were generally pleased with what was observed across Rhode Island.
Beaches were busy, Raimondo said, but their parking lots never reached full capacity. Department of Environmental Management personnel passed out “thousands” of face masks at beaches and parks, she said, helping produce a high level of compliance among visitors.
The governor said Department of Business Regulation inspectors focused largely on restaurants and retail establishments during their weekend visits. While compliance with mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and high-contact surface cleaning protocols was high overall, she said two concerns emerged – that roughly 20 percent of restaurants were not adequately keeping records of guests for contact tracing purposes, and that about 10 percent of restaurants allowed “crowding and too much mingling” among patrons.
Raimondo singled out bars, saying: “No bar in the state of Rhode Island should be operating as a bar. You operate as a restaurant. There should be no congregating at bars, period … We’re going to really start to crack down on that.”
The new enforcement approach Raimondo outlined – which comes after months of deliberately refraining from what she called a “heavy handed” approach – will essentially be two-tiered.
Establishments that engage in “egregious disregard for the rules” will face immediate issuance of a “compliance order” from the state and may be fined on the spot, the governor said. Second offenses would carry fines or the potential for temporary shutdown orders.
For “less significant” infractions and “honest mistakes,” Raimondo said – having the wrong size plexiglass barrier, for example, or failing to post required signage – the first violation would carry a warning. Subsequent violations would result in compliance orders or fines.
Full enforcement guidelines have been posted on DBR’s website, dbr.ri.gov. The site also has a list of businesses that have been issued compliance orders due to violations of COVID-related regulations.
State officials announced late last week that visitation at nursing homes and assisted living facilities would be allowed to resume on a limited basis starting Wednesday, July 8.
During her briefing, Raimondo said hospitals are also being added to the list starting immediately.
“I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but in light of everything we’ve faced, we felt it was the right thing to do to keep everybody safe,” the governor said.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state’s Department of Health, said nursing homes and assisted living facilities were previously asked to develop visitation plans for state review and approval. Last week, the state provided a standard set of rules for facilities that have not developed individualized plans.
A “small group” of facilities will continue to bar visitation for now, Alexander-Scott said, due either to recent positive COVID tests or the need for additional time to prepare for visitors.
Facilities will be required to take numerous infection control steps as part of the visitation process, Alexander-Scott said. Appointments will be required, and visits will be limited to 30 minutes. Facilities will also need to conduct health screenings at the door and maintain a daily log of visitors for contact tracing purposes.
The visitation allowance also includes barbers and hairdressers, who have been prohibited from visiting congregate living facilities thus far during the crisis.
Alexander-Scott said the state’s hospitals are moving into the second level of a three-tiered visitation plan. It also includes a number of limitations, and allowances will vary between different hospitals.
By the numbers, notes on testing
Wednesday’s COVID-19 data update shows 41 new cases in Rhode Island among a set of 3,383 tests, a positive rate of roughly 1.2 percent. The state’s total case count is now 17,204, and more than 264,000 Rhode Islanders have been tested to date.
Two more people have died as a result of the virus, bringing the state’s overall toll to 971. Raimondo called each new death a “stark and harsh reminder to each and every one of us that people die if we don’t follow the rules.”
Fifty-six people were hospitalized in connection with COVID-19 as of Wednesday’s update, with five in ICUs and five breathing through ventilators. The three-day average of Rhode Island hospitalizations was 57 as of Wednesday.
Asked by a reported about some Rhode Islanders experiencing long delays in getting test results, Alexander-Scott said many private labs that send samples out of state for processing have faced backlogs as the crisis has escalated nationally. She said health officials are working to increase Rhode Island’s in-state lab capacity, while the State Health Laboratories remain focused largely on processing tests related to potential outbreaks and facilities such as nursing homes.
Raimondo also announced Wednesday that 10 sites have been set up across the state to allow out-of-state travelers in Rhode Island to be tested for COVID-19. The tests will cost roughly $100, she said, and a list of the sites is posted at health.ri.gov/covid. Hotels and rental property owners will also be enlisted to spread the word.
Raimondo imposed new travel restrictions as part Rhode Island’s move into phase three of the reopening process, with a particular focus on tourists from hot spots who plan long stays in the Ocean State.
Currently, international travelers arriving in Rhode Island are required to self-quarantine for 14 days. The same goes for any domestic traveler coming from a state with a positive test rate of 5 percent or greater.
Domestic travelers have two options to avoid quarantine, however – proof of a negative test no longer than 72 hours before their arrival, or a test once they arrive. The governor noted that long-term visitors are required to quarantine until they receive their negative test result. She also noted there are a number of exemptions, including people traveling to Rhode Island for work or to attend a funeral service.
Elsewhere during Monday’s briefing:
* Raimondo said the plans to make an announcement on July 15 regarding the use of funding the state received through the federal CARES Act to support small businesses.
The governor has held off on using any of the state’s $1.25 billion stimulus for that purpose, citing continued uncertainty over whether – and to what degree – Congress will provide additional relief to help states bridge yawning budget gaps.
The possibility exists that the federal government opts instead to ease restrictions on how the first round of aid is used, and the governor, as a result, has kept a tighter hold on the funding than some of her counterparts in other states.
Raimondo on Wednesday made a new plea for additional federal aid, saying Rhode Island would face “crushing” budget cuts and layoffs without it. But she also said she is “increasingly confident Congress is going to do the right thing” in the weeks ahead.
“It’s at a point now where it’s got to happen,” she said of the small business relief, saying it will most likely come in the form of “small grants” that can be distributed quickly to put “dollars in the hands of small businesses.”
* Raimondo’s next briefing is scheduled for Friday, July 10. She said starting next week, the plan is to scale back briefings from three days each week to Wednesdays only, although that might vary based on the number of announcements to be made.