7 more dead, 269 new COVID-19 cases in RI; May 9 reopening plan laid out

Coronavirus

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

  • 7 more dead; death toll now 233
  • Drop in cases, rise in hospitalizations
  • Guidelines released for 3-phase reopening
  • 10-person gatherings possible on May 9
  • Dine-in eating expected to slowly return

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Health Department on Monday announced the deaths of seven more Rhode Islanders who contracted COVID-19, and reported 269 new confirmed cases of the disease in the state, as the governor continued to lay out her thinking on reopening the economy.

All seven people who died lived in nursing homes or other congregate facilities, according to R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. They ranged in age from their 50s to their 90s.

The fresh data brings Rhode Island’s coronavirus death toll to 233, and means 7,708 people have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 1. The number of new cases confirmed was down sharply over the weekend compared with most of last week, though officials have cautioned that various factors can skew the weekend figures.

The newly confirmed coronavirus cases include 11 residents at the Rhode Island Veterans Home, the state-run nursing home for wartime veterans, bringing the total number there to at least 12. Alexander-Scott said only the first resident to test positive, announced Friday, is showing symptoms.

After declining for most of last week, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized rose to 266, with 81 in the ICU and 56 on ventilators.

“Overall it’s a very stable picture,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said. “We are not out of the woods but we are experiencing a favorable trend in that we are experiencing a bit of a plateau.” While she called the uptick in hospitalizations “unfortunate,” she said, “I feel confident we are in a plateau and that’s a good thing.”

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At her daily coronavirus briefing, Raimondo offered details on how the first steps toward reopening the economy will work if she lifts her stay-at-home order when it expires on May 9. She announced a new website with more information, reopeningRI.com, and feedback is being gathered through an online survey.

“The last thing I want to do is keep anyone out of work one minute longer than necessary,” she said. “We’re going to get you back to work as quickly as is safely possible.” But lifting the order will depend on data over the next two weeks. “I won’t allow us to go back to work unless I’m sure we’re ready,” she said.

The governor provided a new nautical-themed guide to her administration’s three-phase plan for reopening the economy as part of a 12-page plan posted to the new website. She also noted that unlike some states, Rhode Island never shut down manufacturing and construction businesses.

If phase one begins May 9, Raimondo suggested it would be “a tiny increase in our flexibility.” The limit on size of social gatherings would rise from five to 10; employees who can work from home would be asked to continue to do so, but some may return; and various types of business establishments would be able to do more.

But she also laid out some of the ways life would not be returning to normal. Restaurants, for example, would not be able to use the same menus for different customers and half the seating might be removed. Cloth face coverings would still be required if dining in.

The second phase would be about creating new models for businesses. Additional child care options would be available; more restaurants, retailers and salons might open; and the limit on social gatherings would be increased from 10 to 15 people. Older individuals and those with underlying health conditions would be encouraged to stay home other than going to work or out for necessities.

The third phase would build on the second, with gatherings of 50 people allowed, schools reopening under restricted rules, and more people allowed inside offices, restaurants and retailers.

Covering your face and practicing social distancing — remaining six feet apart — would continue under all three phases. Raimondo warned, “If there’s another spike, we’re going to have to pull back. I can’t promise that won’t happen.”

Under the governor’s guidelines, the key to moving between phases would be seeing a two-week downward trend in the number of new coronavirus cases, or a two-week trend of stable or declining hospitalizations.

“We’re not there today, but we’re going to work around the clock so that we are there by May 9,” Raimondo said, indicating she will offer an update at the end of each week about where the state stands and whether it is time to move to a new phase.

Christopher Carlozzi, the National Federation of Independent Business’s Rhode Island state director, welcomed the announcements.

“Small businesses in Rhode Island are ready to make necessary changes to keep their customers and workers safe when the economy reopens,” Carlozzi said in a statement. “Small businesses can no longer afford to be shuttered and require more than loans and grants to ensure their survival.”

He added that small companies “are prepared to adhere to social distancing, reduce location capacity, properly sanitize, and provide protective gear for staff.”

No decision has been made on when gyms, yoga students and other fitness facilities can reopen, according to Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, who led the drafting of the reopening guidelines.

The state’s hospitals submitted plans due Monday for how they could safely resume elective surgeries, and those are being reviewed by the Department of Health, according to the governor. The cancellation of those non-emergency procedures, while supported by hospital leaders, has dealt a devastating blow to the facilities’ finances.

Domestic travelers will likely continue to be told to quarantine for 14 days on arrival in Rhode Island once phase one begins, according to Raimondo, who said she is discussing travel-related regulations with other governors.

Religious services are not likely to get the Health Department’s blessing to resume on May 9. “I can’t foresee a scenario in which we’re going to be able to go to church in phase one,” Raimondo said, though she said she hopes there will be a way to do so in “some form or fashion” by the end of May.

Rhode Island’s Episcopal bishop, the Rev. Nicholas Knisely, indicated his denomination will work with state leaders to find a safe plan to reopen.

“Gathering will not be the same as it was, at least for a while,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s imperative that we keep the community safe.” He added, “Worship and service haven’t stopped.”

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Pryor said state leaders are “looking closely” at when and how they could allow the two state-owned casinos operated by Twin River to reopen. Gambling is the third-largest source of state revenue.

Reacting to a widely noted warning Sunday from Brown University President Christina Paxson about the potential for higher education closures this fall, Raimondo said she shares the goal of allowing colleges and universities to resume on-campus classes in September, but suggested they will need to provide clear safety guidelines to do so.

Asked by an independent media outlet about President Trump’s musings at a White House briefing last week about the potential health benefits of injecting Americans with disinfectant, Raimondo described herself as “shocked” by his comments. “I would suggest you don’t do that,” she said. (The president now says he was being sarcastic in order to bait reporters.)

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory expires on May 4, a few days before Raimondo’s. Baker indicated Monday he has not yet decided whether to extend it.

Live Streaming Monday: Coronavirus Coverage

1 p.m. RI Gov. Gina Raimondo Briefing | 3:30 p.m. Gov. Charlie Baker briefing

Watch all daily coronavirus updates here on WPRI.com or on the WPRI 12 mobile app » Go here to watch CBS News Coverage»

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