19 more COVID-19 deaths in RI; aim is to lift stay-at-home order after May 8

Coronavirus

Key takeaways from today’s RI COVID-19 briefing:

  • 19 more dead; death toll now 137
  • Hospitalizations tick up by only 3
  • Mask executive order now in effect
  • Garden centers getting new guidance
  • Focus next week: reopening the economy

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Nineteen more people infected with COVID-19 have died in Rhode Island, bringing the death toll to 137 and marking the largest one-day increase, but Gov. Gina Raimondo nonetheless expects to roll out a plan in the coming week to reopen the economy.

The dead included one person in their 30s, two in their 50s, three in their 60s, four in their 70s, seven in their 80s, and two in their 90s, according to the R.I. Health Department. All but two died in the last 24 hours, with the others dying the previous day.

In addition to the uptick in deaths, the department on Saturday announced another 317 people have tested positive for the disease, for a total of 4,491 confirmed cases since March 1.

Hospitalizations continue to grow slowly, increasing to 255 on Saturday compared to 252 the day before.

Raimondo said the state is still ascending toward a peak of the public health crisis, which she expects will happen in the last week of April or the first week of May. The state is still working to acquire more ventilators, she said.

On a conference call, Raimondo told reporters she does not expect the state to hit over 2,000 hospitalizations in early May, as forecast in an estimate her office put out just two days ago, adding that the same modeling had previously predicted as many as 7,000 hospital beds would be needed. She credited the drop to residents adhering to her stay-at-home order.

Still, the governor said work is continuing to convert three facilities including the Rhode Island Convention Center into temporary field hospitals, partly at the urging of FEMA, led by Rhode Island native Peter Gaynor. She said the federal government will reimburse states for field hospital costs regardless of whether they wind up being used.

Looking ahead, Raimondo expects to make an announcement next week about how Rhode Island will reopen its economy. She does not currently expect to extend her current stay-at-home order when it expires May 8, though she warned that could change.

“Our goal is to reopen as soon as possible — as is safe with new restrictions — industry by industry in phases,” Raimondo said.

To get there, Raimondo is following guidance from the White House that suggests new cases need to decline for two consecutive weeks. The 317 new cases announced Saturday represented a one-day decline from Friday — when cases increased from the day before.

In preparation for that, Raimondo has tapped Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor to head the planning effort to reopen the economy, saying he has already started meeting with business groups — big and small — throughout the state to come up with a strategy.

“This is going to be very inclusive,” Raimondo said.

There was good news for small garden stores: the governor said the Department of Environmental Management is developing regulations that will allow them to reopen by April 27. Acknowledging complaints that big-box stores have been selling the same products while the small stores were forced to close, Raimondo said she will be putting new restrictions on the big stores Sunday.

In another note to the business community, the governor reminded people that her new executive order mandating most employees wear cloth masks at work went into effect today in Rhode Island.

“This is weird, there’s no other way to say it,” Raimondo said. “But don’t look for ways to get around the rules, look for creative ways to follow the rules.”

“Wearing any kind of covering over your nose and mouth does not make you invincible to the coronavirus,” said Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. “We must continue to do both: wearing a face cloth covering, as well as respecting the social distancing boundaries”

The R.I. Department of Business Regulation will be doing random spot checks of businesses to ensure compliance, Raimondo said. Companies are expected to ask their customers to also wear masks in an effort to slow the transmission of the virus, although they can’t be turned away, she added.

The latter part of the mandate contradicts an executive order East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva planned to sign Saturday that would allow businesses and nonprofits to turn away customers without masks.

Asked about DaSilva’s move during a conference call with reporters, Raimondo said she didn’t know about the East Providence order and would talk with the mayor — noting that refusing customers wasn’t allowed under her own statewide order.

Coronavirus continues to wreck havoc on nursing homes, with residents making up 10 of the 19 deaths announced Saturday, according to Alexander-Scott.

The nursing homes with newly reported deaths included two at Mount Saint Rita in Cumberland, two at Oakland Grove in Woonsocket and two at Scalabrini Villa in North Kingstown, with the rest at unidentified nursing homes in East Providence, North Providence and Providence.

The disease so far has disproportionately affected the Hispanic community, although data is still limited. Based on a small sample size, the Health Department said Hispanic Rhode Islanders have made up 45% of confirmed cases — even though the group makes up just about 16% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Alexander-Scott said the state is trying to make services more easily accessible to communities of color and to all families whose second language is English.

The goal is to establish testing sites in certain communities that are accessible by walking and that “all communities have the support they need with access to testing and services,” Alexander-Scott said.

Raimondo made note that the public health crisis is so far most negatively affecting some of the state’s most vulnerable communities, including artists whose incomes have been crushed due to the shuttering of the arts and entertainment industries.

To that end, the governor highlighted the Rhode Island Artist Relief Fund launched earlier this month by the R.I. State Council on the Arts in partnership with the Rhode Island Foundation.

The fund is designed to offer $1,000 grants to artists, art teachers and others within that field to help offset the lost of wages. The offering is in addition to whatever unemployment benefits people might qualify for through the R.I. Department of Labor and Training. The fund has distributed about $126,000 in two weeks to help roughly 250 artists so far.

“If you’re trying to make a living as an artist right now it’s incredibly hard, if not impossible,” Raimondo said, adding an additional thanks to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and the city’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism.

With an eye on the state’s budget, Raimondo noted that on Friday Rhode Island received half of the $1.25 billion for COVID-19 response it’s slated to get through the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act.

The second tranche of money is expected to come in sometime over the next couple weeks, welcome news for state leaders amid depleted revenue and high expenses related to the public health crisis.

Raimondo said the state continues to look for guidance from the federal government about how the money can be spent, but is nonetheless grateful that it’s come.

“It was very much needed,” Raimondo said. “Our revenue has dried up precipitously. Also, we’re spending money to deal with the crisis.”

Regulations on summertime activities, particularly the allowable size of crowds, will be released by May 8. Looking further ahead, Raimondo said it’s “very much an open question right now” whether colleges and universities will be able to resume in-person classes this fall.

On a lighter note, Raimondo said of Saturday’s unseasonable snowfall, “I called Mother Nature and told her to knock it off.”

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