For full audio of the governor's follow-up conference call with reporters, click here.
Saying Rhode Island has met a series of needed benchmarks in terms of its COVID-19 response, Gov. Gina Raimondo on Thursday made an anticipated announcement official – that she will allow the current stay-at-home order to expire and begin the first phase of a gradual reopening plan on Saturday, May 9.
“Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Gov, are we going to lift the stay-at-home order on Saturday?’ The answer is yes … I feel that we have the systems in place to move forward with phase one,” the governor said during her daily briefing.
She added: “The thing I want to convey to Rhode Island is, you should start to regain your confidence … We’ve had literally thousands of people working seven days a week for the last eight weeks to put these systems in place, and we have a million Rhode Islanders doing the right thing.”
While the stay-at-home order will be lifted – paving the way for the limited reopening of non-essential retail businesses – a host of other restrictions will remain in place, including the prohibition on social gatherings of more than five people.
And Raimondo again stressed that at least for the immediate future, the way of life Rhode Islanders have become accustomed to during the pandemic will not change significantly. She noted that Connecticut and Massachusetts have extended their respective stay-at-home orders – and that Rhode Island remains precariously positioned between the virus “hotspots” of New York City and Boston.
“We have to be thoughtful, we have to be smart about it, and we have to go slow … What’s [phase one] going to look like? Frankly, not a whole lot different than it looks right now,” she said.
How long will the first phase last?
“The answer is, I don’t know … I will say this – it’s the hope that it won’t be very long,” she said, adding: “If you can hang in just a bit longer, I do feel that there’s real light at the end of the tunnel.”
Raimondo urged Rhode Islanders to keep their social networks limited and follow the “gold standard” of COVID-19 precautions – remaining home when feeling ill, wearing a nose and mouth covering when around others, and maintaining 6-foot social distancing.
State meets benchmarks, governor says
Last week, Raimondo set out a series of benchmarks – most of a statistical nature – that would be used to determine whether conditions would allow for the lifting of the stay-at-home order and the start of the reopening process.
On Thursday, she said those various targets have more or less been met.
Perhaps the most central of the “key indicators” was the need for a 14-day decline in new cases or a 14-day stabilization or decline in hospitalizations.
Raimondo said based on a “three-day moving average,” Rhode Island has “hit the mark” on both counts. The average, she said, is designed to account for daily fluctuations in the data.
The governor said the three-day average shows new hospital admissions have decreased by five in the last 14 days, or roughly 15 percent. In terms of new cases, she said the average shows 95 fewer on a daily basis than two weeks ago, a decline of 25 percent.
Raimondo also pointed to a decline in the percent of positive COVID-19 tests; the state’s ability to test “nearly all” symptomatic people within the same day symptoms appear; “huge progress” in terms of expanding testing access to vulnerable populations; improvements in the state’s quarantine and isolation support system; the establishment of new workplace guidance and regulations; and the continuing work to create an “early warning system” to monitor for potential outbreaks.
The governor said as of Thursday, 30 percent of Rhode Island’s ICU beds are available, with surge plans in place and the field hospitals in Providence, Cranston and North Kingstown ready if needed. She also said the state has at least “several weeks” worth of personal protective equipment, or PPE, on hand.
“I feel that I am leading from a position of confidence and strength, and quite frankly trust, from the people of Rhode Island,” she said.
Phase one details
The limited reopening of non-essential retail stores – which we ordered shut in March as the crisis escalated locally – is the most significant aspect of phase one of the governor’s reopening plan, which can be found in full at ReopeningRI.com.
Stores will face capacity limits, similar to what has already been in place for supermarkets and large retailers. Masks will be required for workers and customers – and a new executive order requiring Rhode Islanders wear cloth face coverings in all public spaces takes effect Friday.
Despite the limitations, Raimondo said the new retail push is part of a broader focus on reversing, to some degree, the economic devastation the pandemic has brought to the state.
“Go ahead. Get back out there. We need to stimulate this economy … get out there and do a little bit of safe shopping,” she said.
Another aspect of the first phase is a push to restart health care services that have been delayed due to the crisis. She urged Rhode Islanders who have delayed health care needs to contact their primary care physicians, and added that hospitals across the state will be resuming “required but non-emergency medical procedures” in the days ahead.
Elsewhere, a number of state parks – including Snake Den in Johnston, Meshanticut in Cranston and Lincoln Woods – will reopen on a limited basis as the stay-at-home order expires. A full list is available at riparks.com.
Office workers who have been working remotely should continue to do so, the governor said, although workplaces can allow those employees to return on a limited basis.
Houses of worship will be allowed to reopen for services of five or fewer people, while up to 10 mourners will be permissible for funerals during the first phase.
“We felt we had to do something” in terms of funerals, Raimondo said during a follow-up conference call with reporters.
Some orders extended
Even as the stay-at-home order – which called on Rhode Islanders to avoid all non-essential travel – is expiring, a host of executive orders Raimondo has issued in response to the pandemic have been extended.
Continued through May 22 will be the requirement that all out-of-state travelers coming to Rhode Island to stay self-quarantine for 14 days; the prohibition on dine-in services at restaurants, bars and cafés; the closure of entertainment businesses such as movie theaters and bowling alleys; and the closure of close-contact businesses such as gyms, nail salons and barber shops.
Limited outdoor dining is being eyed later in phase one, and Raimondo offered a small piece of additional relief for culinary businesses on Thursday. Beer and wine sales will continued to be allowed for take-out purposes, and mixed drinks in sealed containers will now be permitted as well.
“This industry’s been crushed all over the country, and we have to focus on helping them get back to work … If you can, do take-out,” she said.
Extended through June 5 will be the requirement that all international travelers arriving in Rhode Island self-quarantine for 14-days; the requirement that all people diagnosed with COVID-19, and those considered to have been exposed through close contact, isolate and self-quarantine under Department of Health guidelines; the extension of the firearm purchase background check window from seven to 30 days; and the order requiring health insurers cover telehealth services.
By the numbers
Another 325 new cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Rhode Island, according to the Department of Health’s data update. That brings the state’s total case count to 10,530 since March 1.
Eighteen new deaths associated with the virus were reported Thursday, involving people from their 60s to older than 100. Rhode Island’s COVID-19 death toll now stands at 388.
Two of the deaths in the latest update involved residents of the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol. Both of those residents were in their 70s and had underlying medical conditions, according to Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.
As of Thursday, 318 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized in connection with COVID-19. Of those, 82 were being treated in ICUs and 56 were intubated. To date, 696 people have been discharged from the state’s hospitals following treatment for the disease.
New city and town case counts had not been posted as of press time on Thursday. The latest figures, from Monday, showed Providence (3,096 cases) continuing to have the most by far of any community, followed by 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).
Overall, Rhode Island has tested 82,318 people for COVID-19, with 71,788 tests coming back negative. Thursday’s update included 2,945 new tests.