Editor's note: This story appears on our websites as part of a partnership between Beacon Communications and East Bay Newspapers to share coverage of the COVID-19 crisis.
Gov. Gina Raimondo struck an optimistic but cautious note Tuesday, telling Rhode Islanders during her daily COVID-19 briefing that while people are doing a good job abiding by state requirements, the gains the state is making could be threatened if residents start to disregard safety measures.
“As we go forward it’s important that we do whatever we need to do in order to accept that this is the new way of living, not try to fight against the new regulations, and not allow ourselves to get too frustrated,” she said.
“And that’s not going to be easy. But if we try to go back to the old way of doing things (too quickly), we’re going to get into trouble. Breaking the rules only hurts you and your family.”
To that end, she said that as Rhode Island officials lift the state’s stay-at-home orders, allow retail establishments to open on a restricted basis, re-open state parks and open restaurants for limited outdoor dining, it is important that residents continue to wear masks, keep their distance while out in public and limit gatherings to five or fewer people.
And now more than ever, she said, it is essential that people carry and complete their daily contact tracing diaries.
“If you haven’t done it, it’s not too late,” she said. “As we re-open the economy you’re going to go out more. That means these contact tracing notebooks are going to become more and more important."
Residents should make a habit of keeping a log and writing down where they go every day, who they came into contact with, and when. That way, if residents get sick, the state can use those diaries to reach out and test those with whom they’ve had contact, she said.
“This will save lives, so please stick with it,” the governor said. “I do it every night. Frankly it will allow us to keep opening the economy.”
Though she spoke about restaurants only briefly in her statements, Raimondo was asked during the question and answer portion of her briefing about the state’s decision to allow limited outdoor dining next Monday.
One reporter told the governor he had done an informal survey that found that 84 percent of Rhode Islanders would resist going out to eat even after restrictions are lifted. Asked for her response to that, Raimondo said she had heard similar concerns, but people needn’t be afraid, she urged:
"It’s time to be brave,” she said. “It is time to start going out again, slowly, carefully, within the rules.”
As for restaurants that only have the means to serve indoors, she said she feels for them, but sadly cannot allow indoor dining at the moment.
“If I were them I’d be complaining too,” she said. “I think it’s not safe right now to do indoor dining.”
There are many other unanswered questions, and Raimondo said the state will try to address some of them during a Facebook Live session scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday. She hopes the session, as well as updated information on reopeningri.com, will answer some of the many questions restaurant owners and potential diners have.
In striking a brave tone about going back out again, she also implored Rhode Islanders who have put off elective surgeries, procedures or canceled appointments with their doctors, to go ahead and make them.
“The doctors are there,” she said. “The hospitals are ready. But patients are still afraid. I want you to have confidence that we wouldn’t be allowing this if it weren’t safe.”
Workforce stabilization efforts
The COVID-19 crisis has hit congregate settings — nursing homes, group homes and the state Veterans’ Home — particularly hard, she said, as it thrives in places where large groups of people are kept in close proximity and suffer from pre-existing medical conditions, frailty or age-related health issues.
Two weeks ago, the state established the Congregate Care Workforce Stabilization Fund, providing $8.2 million to be dispersed among low-earning, front line workers in the state’s congregate care facilities. The money is being distributed to all employees earning $20 or less per hour, she said, and to date $6 million has been distributed. Over the next two weeks, the $2.2 million balance will be dispersed.
She said she was also glad to report that National Guard-aided testing of all state congregate facilities, which has been carried out over the past weeks, will begin again shortly, and all staff and residents at all facilities will again be tested.
Distance learning is going well, the governor reported:
“Attendance is high, engagement is high, teachers are working harder than they’ve probably ever worked (and) students are leaning in and engaging.”
To date, the biggest roadblock to distance learning has been access to Internet in the state’s lower income areas. She announced Tuesday that an ongoing partnership with cell phone companies, to freeze charges for free “hotspot” internet phone connections that can then be used to link computers up to the internet, will continue through the end of June. It was expected to expire in the coming weeks.
The virus has laid bare the state’s economic and healthcare inequities, Raimondo said, and that is readily evidenced by the disproportionality large number of infections in the state’s Latino and color communities. The state is working to learn the reasons, she said, but “a lot of the underlying inequities in our health care system that existed long prior to COVID-19 are exacerbating this.”
She renewed her promise Tuesday to continue to address those inequities, as the goal is equal access to health care, and equal treatment, for all:
“We’re doing a lot,” she said. “We’re not doing enough. So every day we try to do more. I am committed to doing better; we want to help every Rhode Islander get the support they need to get through this crisis.”
Too much too soon?
During the question and answer portion of the briefing, a reporter noted that several federal officials have cautioned that they believe it is too early for states to begin re-opening their economies, and that doing so will lead to a new wave of virus. With Rhode Island the first New England state to start re-opening, the governor was asked if she thought the state is moving too quickly:
“I don’t” have concerns, she said. “If I did, I wouldn’t be doing it. We’re going ahead of ... some of our neighbors. I made that decision because we’ve had 14 days of a plateau, hospitalizations going down, and our testing is highest per capita. I felt it was safe to go ahead and do this."
The state budget
The governor also passed on a sobering message Tuesday regarding the state’s finances, and whether the state will be forced to lay off or furlough some workers:
“With an $800 million deficit, it is hard to see how we get out of this without furloughs,” she said. “I would love to avoid furloughs and layoffs, but I don’t see how we’re going to be able to avoid that. This budget is going to be brutal. I don’t know where we're going to find $800 million.”
She said she doesn’t have all the answers, and “there’s going to be a lot of challenges and structural changes” required. At the moment, the state is waiting on word that the federal government could possibly approve another stimulus package that could help the state’s precarious financial situation. Until she knows whether that stimulus aid is coming, she said, “it’s hard to plan a budget.”
“If we get half a billion dollars, that $800 million deficit is going to look very different. I’m told that (word on that stimulus is) two to three weeks away.
14 new deaths
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, released today’s data on the COVID-19 virus:
* There are 165 additional cases from the last count Monday;
* There have been 14 additional deaths since Monday. They occurred in residents ranging from 60 or more years of age to more than 100 years of age.
* Of the state’s total cases, 277 residents are hospitalized and of those, 72 are in Intensive Care and 53 are breathing with the aid of ventilators.