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.
At her daily COVID-19 briefing Friday, Gov. Gina Raimondo explained the criteria being used to determine when the state is ready to move into a different phase of re-opening the economy.
She also advised high schools that as of now, administrators should plan on virtual graduation ceremonies only. She said that could change, however, by the time commencement exercises are held next month.
Rhode Island is currently in Phase 1 of the economy being re-opened, which began with the governor lifting her stay-at-home order on May 8. Non-essential retail stores have been allowed to re-open with some restrictions, and outdoor dining is an option that can begin Monday for those restaurants that have plans in place.
She said if residents keep following rules on social distancing and wear masks in public places, then the state will enter a new phase roughly every month. Phase 2, in which more businesses will be re-opened with restrictions being relaxed, is expected to begin in early June. Phase 3 should start in early July, she said.
The governor, along with Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, announced 11 new COVID-19 related fatalities since yesterday, and 203 new positive cases.
Four different metrics
Raimondo outlined four different metrics that are being used to guide the state’s re-opening plan. She pointed out that every time restrictions are lifted during a new phase, the state has about two weeks to determine the impact the order has on the spread of the virus. If the impact is negative, then the state may return to an earlier phase, with more restrictions.
• Hospital capacity is the most important metric, she said. “We cannot allow us to get in a place where our hospitals get overwhelmed. It’s what you saw happen in Italy, it’s what you saw happen in New York City and other places,” the governor said, adding the state wants to make sure anyone can get a hospital bed at any time. If the state continues to see fewer than 70 percent of hospitals beds filled, it’s safe to move on to the new phase, she said.
• New hospitalizations is a good indicator of the trend being seen with the virus, she said. “If we’re below 70 percent of hospital bed capacity but we’re seeing a spike in new hospitalizations, that’s a sign something is happening and we may not be able to move forward.”
• The rate of spread, which epidemiologists indicate using the “R” value, is another metric. An R value of 1, for example, indicates that one person with COVID-19 is infecting just one other person. “That’s a stable place; it’s a number that our system can handle,” Raimondo said. An R value of 3, however, which is where Rhode Island started out, “is a scary place to be,” she said. The state is currently at an R value of 1 or slightly less, she said. If it rises to 1.3 to 1.5, however, “that means the virus is picking up steam” and it may be time to move back a phase, the governor said. This statistic can “absolutely” be controlled by residents through wearing masks, washing hands, staying six feet away from others, and getting tested and self-quarantining if sick, she said.
• Doubling rate of hospitalizations is the final metric used. If hospitalizations double every 30 days or more, which is expected, the state could move to a new phase. But if they double every 20 days or less, the governor said she’d have to move the state back a phase with more restrictions.
High school graduations
During the question-and-answer period, the governor was asked what high schools will be permitted to do in terms of graduation ceremonies. North Smithfield High School, one reporter said, was planning on holding commencement exercises on its baseball field, with each graduate practicing social distancing while he or she walked across a stage to be recognized.
“They were read the riot act,” the reporter said of the school’s plan, adding that the “goalposts” for what is permitted for schools seem to be constantly changing.
“This is going to be frustrating,” Raimondo said, noting that her administration is in daily contact with superintendents. Although she acknowledged that North Smithfield’s plan sounded “reasonable,” she couldn’t commit to allowing it at this time.
“It’s hard to give guidance over what I may think is OK a month from now,” she said. “The best, safest course of action and fairest thing for these kids is to give them some certainty. In the month of May, plan an event that is virtual, that is safe.”
Also during the Q&A portion of the briefing, the governor was asked about previous remarks she had made that indicated state beaches would be re-opened around Memorial Day weekend (beginning Saturday, May 23) as part of Phase 2. On Friday, however, she said Phase 2 won’t begin until after Memorial Day, although the beaches could be re-opened by May 30. Local beaches that aren’t operated by the state have generally been following the governor’s lead.
Narragansett to defy order?
One reporter informed the governor that the Narragansett Town Council, on Monday, May 18, is planning to consider a resolution that essentially says “it’s open for business,” in defiance of her COVID-19-related executive orders.
The resolution directs the “Narragansett Police Department and other Narragansett law enforcement entities to exercise their discretion and not issue fines or violations based on the restrictions imposed on places of worship, restaurants, retail establishments and other small businesses by the Executive Orders of the State of Rhode Island issued branch since the Cornovirus pandemic began in March of 2020.”
“That’s a huge mistake,” Raimondo said. “It’s so selfish to all the people of Rhode Island who have worked so hard for so long, putting their lives on hold … so we can all be safe. To jump the gun a couple weeks before we’re ready … is a huge risk. That is a reckless thing to do and I really hope they don’t do it.”
Questions over Abbott tests
Alexander-Scott responded to an announcement yesterday by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) that it would investigate the accuracy of COVID-19 tests conducted at the Twin River facility by CVS using an Abbott testing machine.
She defended the Abbott machine, saying it’s allowed the state to dramatically increase its testing capacity. She acknowledged, however, that the Abbott test is slightly less sensitive than a laboratory test.
“It is a point-of-care test,” Alexander-Scott said. “The test is one piece of information that a health care person in the office would use to evaluate a patient.”
Older adults town hall
The governor also announced a “town hall”-type of event for older adults and their families and caregivers to be held next week.
It’s scheduled for 11 a.m. on Thursday, May 21, on Facebook Live.
“This is a really hard time for older adults,” she said.
Reminder for businesses
Raimondo reminded local businesses that Monday, May 18, is the deadline for them to have their COVID-19 control plans complete. An easy-to-use template is online at reopeningri.com, she said.