Retail, outdoor dining on RI's radar; new order on masks takes effect Friday

Governor outlines gradual reopening, plans to increase testing

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A limited reopening of non-essential retail stores will begin if the current stay-at-home order is lifted on May 9, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced this week, while plans are also in the works to allow restaurants to start offering outdoor dining services as part of the first phase of the state’s reopening.

Meanwhile, a host of other restrictions – including the prohibition on visitation at nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living facilities – will remain in place during phase one.

The governor acknowledged that some retailers and restaurants will not have the capability to reopen even under the new rules. But she again expressed optimism that the stay-at-home order will be allowed to expire, saying Rhode Islanders were “very compliant” with mask wearing and social distancing over the past weekend despite the warm weather – and pointing to the latest COVID-19 data as a telling a “good news story” despite a number of new deaths related to the virus.

“As I stand here today … it is my hope and intention to lift the stay-at-home order when it expires May 8,” the governor said Monday, before providing what she described as a “flavor of what phase one might look like.”

She reiterated that intention Wednesday, with plans for a formal announcement on Thursday that would include an update on the status of various other executive orders.

There have been other significant developments this week as well.

On Tuesday, Raimondo announced a new executive order will take effect Friday requiring all Rhode Islanders to wear cloth-based nose and mouth coverings in both indoor and outdoor public spaces.

And on Wednesday, she announced ambitious new testing goals – including 10,000 daily COVID-19 tests statewide by July, and 20,000 daily be the end of September – along with a new program through which 5,000 randomly selected Rhode Islanders can receive diagnostic and antibody tests at four Stop & Shop locations, including in Cranston, North Providence, Pawtucket and Newport.

Phase one preview

Using a series of visualizations to illustrate how the new phase-one rules would look when implemented, Raimondo on Monday discussed how non-essential retailers, restaurants and offices can expect to proceed if the stay-at-home order is lifted.

Tempering expectations, she prefaced the remarks by saying: “It is not going to look radically different than it does now. And if it does, and we start to see crowds and bunching, we’re doing something wrong.”

For retail stores that were ordered closed in late March, the governor said the new restrictions will be “similar to what you’re seeing in grocery stores now,” with a limit of one customer being allowed inside to browse for every 300 square feet of space. That is the formula currently used to determine occupancy for grocery stores during special hours for older shoppers, she said. Under the new rules, workers and customers will be required to wear masks.

Raimondo said pre-ordering and pickup services will continue to be encouraged, as will contact-free payment methods.

In terms of restaurants, the governor said outdoor dining would not begin immediately on May 9. Specifics remain limited, but she said it would be a “very different form of dining than we’re used to,” with mask-wearing requirements and “frequently touched and reused objects” such as menus prohibited. Regular dine-in service, she added, will not be included in phase one.

On both the retail and restaurant front, Raimondo said she is aware many establishments lack the capability to accommodate the new rules due to limitations such as space or location. She encouraged businesses to explore “creative” solutions – in the case of restaurants, for instance, using parking areas to accommodate outdoor dining.

Raimondo said close-contact business such as salons “will definitely be the focus of phase two.”

The governor said office workers should continue to work from home during phase one if possible, although returning on a limited basis – to pick up documents and materials, for example – will be permitted.

On Wednesday, Raimondo said new regulations and guidance for businesses would be posted that night on reopeningri.com. Guidance for retailers was scheduled to be posted Thursday, with information regarding restaurants to follow at a later date.

The governor said the new guidance will include a mix of requirements and recommendations.

Among the mandates, she said, will be sending employees home when they are sick, screening workers for symptoms upon arrival, requiring mask-wearing, providing for social distancing, instituting daily cleaning protocols and developing a COVID-19 response plan in the event of a positive case or outbreak.

Another focus of the first phase of the reopening, Raimondo said Monday, will be urging people who have deferred health care services during the crisis to schedule appointments through their provider. That will also involve “relaxing a lot of the requirements” for health care professionals whose work has been slowed or halted by the current crisis.

Raimondo said her decision to proceed with the reopening plan earlier than Massachusetts and other nearby states is tied to the gradual, phased nature of the state’s approach.

“What’s not fine is returning to normal right away,” she said. “Remember, go slow, go steady.”

Under the reopening outline unveiled last week, 14-day trends in terms of COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations will be among the key indicators of when each phase of the reopening process can begin.

New order on masks

Raimondo on Tuesday said she will sign a new executive order, which will take effect Friday, requiring all Rhode Islanders to wear cloth-based mouth and nose coverings while in public places. She previously issued an order requiring workers in all businesses to wear masks while on the job.

As the state prepares to enter the first phase of the reopening plan, “we’re going to have to do better with our facemask wearing,” she said.

“You don’t leave your house without your phone or car keys or wallet, so don’t leave your house without your face mask,” she said, adding: “I fully recognize that this is going to be awkward, strange … and there’s going to be a thousand what-ifs.”

Raimondo said people should “be reasonable and use common sense” in terms of mask wearing, and that officials want to avoid a “heavy-handed” approach to enforcement. She said, for example, that people walking alone or with loved ones need not wear their mask – but should put it on if someone passes by. It is important note the new order does not require business owners to eject customers for failure to wear a mask.

There will be fines for violators, however, and Raimondo said additional guidance will be issued Friday. She also noted Tuesday that a lack of mask-wearing by customers in drive-thru lines at food service establishments remains a source of concern.

The governor recommended Rhode Islanders visit the CDC’s website, cdc,gov, to find a do-it-yourself tutorial on making masks.

By the numbers

Another 21 fatalities related to COVID-19 were reported Monday, bringing the state’s overall death toll to 341 people. It marked the second consecutive day with more than 20 new deaths, following the 24 reported Sunday.

The number of new deaths was lower Tuesday, with 14 fatalities reported. On Wednesday, another 15 deaths were reported.

A total of 10,205 Rhode Islanders have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 1, including another 272 positive cases included in Wednesday’s update. To date, 79,373 Rhode Islanders have been tested for the disease, with 69,168 testing negative. The latest updated is based on 2,938 new tests.

As of Wednesday, 324 people were hospitalized in Rhode Island due to COVID-19. Of those, 86 were on ICUs and 60 were on ventilators. To date, 665 people have been discharged from the state’s hospitals after treatment for the disease.

At press time, city and town case counts had not been updated since Monday. They include Providence (3,096), Pawtucket (946) Cranston (564), Central Falls (503), North Providence (496), East Providence (398), Warwick (384), Woonsocket (331), Cumberland (201), Smithfield (173), Johnston (162), West Warwick (147), North Kingstown (147) and Coventry (109).

Raimondo on Monday said it is important to “remember the toll that this crisis is taking on so many families in Rhode Island, especially those who’ve lost loved ones,” but she also framed the latest figures as “good news” given the decline in new cases and the relative stability of hospitalization and ICU numbers.

“I think these numbers are a good news story … We’re on top of it. It’s stable. We’ve made good choices, and we’ve done as good of a job as we could,” she said.

Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott expressed a similar sentiment on Tuesday.

“The relative stability in these numbers is something that we are considering encouraging,” she said.

At the start of Monday’s briefing, Raimondo said Department of Business Regulation staffers conducted unannounced spot checks at more than 300 businesses across Rhode Island over the weekend. They reported a 95 percent compliance rate in terms of customers wearing masks and nearly 100 percent compliance with the 6-feet social distancing requirement, the governor said.

Ambitious testing goals

Raimondo on Wednesday said Rhode Island tested an average of 2,700 people a day for COVID-19 in the last week, and that the state has tested more than 7 percent of its population for the disease to date. That is well above the national average of 2 to 3 percent, she said.

“So that should give you some comfort … When it comes to testing, we’re doing 3½ times better than most of the rest of America,” she said.

Despite those numbers, Raimondo said that as part of the reopening push, Rhode Island will need to ramp up its testing even more dramatically. She presented the July and September targets in the context of providing “rapid, reliable, affordable testing for everyone who’s symptomatic.”

Part of the effort will involve the creation of an outbreak response team, which the governor said will be “on the ground within four hours” of multiple COVID-19 cases being identified at any business or congregate living site. It will also a “sentinel testing system” that involves asymptomatic people in an effort to identify potential outbreaks in advance; large-scale testing plans for settings such as colleges and large employers; and “cyclical” testing for health care workers, first responders and others.

“To be clear, when they do these tests they only show a moment in time … so we are going to need to have kind of a continuous testing of high-risk communities,” the governor said.

The Stop & Shop testing program is part of an effort to garner more data regarding the prevalence of the virus in the state, Raimondo said. It was piloted this week with employees at the four locations on an opt-in basis, and is being expanded to the random 5,000 person sampling in a similar fashion.

“We want to know what’s going on in Rhode Island,” she said. “This sort of data is going to be so important.”

People who have been chosen for the program will be notified by letter, at which point they can choose to schedule a time to visit one of the supermarkets to receive both COVID-19 diagnostic and antibody tests. Results will be available within approximately 48 hours, the governor said.

Participating in the testing “is and always will be your choice, but I’m asking you to do it, because it’s the right thing for everyone in Rhode Island,” she said.

In another major testing development, Raimondo on Wednesday said that by Monday, the state’s goal is to have tested all residents and staff members at every nursing home in the state. Nursing homes have been devastated by the pandemic, accounting for a large majority of the state’s COVID-19-related deaths to date.

Elsewhere during the governor’s briefings:

* With Mother’s Day  arriving Sunday – and coinciding with the potential end of the stay-at-home order – Raimondo pleaded with Rhode Islanders to resist the urge to have large gatherings with family members and loved ones.

“This year, [Mother’s Day] going to have to be different,” she said, adding: “If I lift the stay-at-home order, which I anticipate I will … we’re still going to be very limited in the number of people that we can be with in social gatherings.” * Noting that this week is

National Nurses Week, Raimondo expressed her gratitude to nurses and asked all Rhode Islanders to do the same.

“Everyone, and I mean every Rhode Islander, please find a way to express your gratitude to nurses,” she said, adding: “Honestly, I don’t know where we would be without you … We consider you among the true unsung heroes of this. You’ve carried us through it, and we are so deeply grateful.”

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