74 new COVID-19 cases in RI; Raimondo defends delaying first day of school

Coronavirus

Key takeaways from Wednesday’s briefing:

  • Level of cases, hospitalizations still a concern
  • School starts Sept. 14; in-person class possible
  • Warwick criticized for virtual-learning vote
  • 400 calls to state police hotline on gatherings
  • Block Island may face more restrictions

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Department of Health reported 74 new coronavirus cases and two additional virus-related deaths on Wednesday, as Gov. Gina Raimondo defended her decisions regarding the start of the new school year.

The department said nine more Rhode Island coronavirus patients were admitted to a hospital while 10 were discharged, putting the current number of hospitalizations at 89. The two newly reported deaths brought Rhode Island’s coronavirus death toll to 1,018.

“Hospitalizations are creeping up. We still have days with more than 100 cases per day,” Raimondo said during her weekly coronavirus briefing Wednesday. “Come on. We’ve got to get kids back to school.”

R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott added that while the number of people testing positive has been roughly flat over the last week, there are still “way too many new cases” and hospitalizations are “higher than we want to be.”

On Tuesday, state officials confirmed Rhode Island public school students’ first day of classes will be Sept. 14, rather than Aug. 31 as originally planned, with teachers reporting on Sept. 9 for professional development days to prepare.

In addition, the governor said her decision on whether to give the green light for in-person learning has been pushed back to the week of Aug. 31. She said she wants to continue to monitor data closer to the first day on Sept. 14 while giving school leaders more time to get ready.

“We’re not going to open schools until they’re safe,” Raimondo said at the briefing.

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Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green reiterated that parents have a choice about whether to send their children to school for in-person learning even if it happens.

“You know what’s best for your family,” Infante-Green said.

Raimondo praised school leaders for “working really hard to do the right thing,” saying she has been consulting with a wide variety of education officials to guide her decision-making.

But the governor had harsh words for the Warwick School Committee, which voted Tuesday night to start the school year with virtual learning only. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, Warwick school leaders never even submitted a hypothetical plan to attempt full in-person learning, she said.

“I could not be more disappointed in the vote that they took,” she said, arguing Warwick officials “threw in the towel” without trying hard enough to find ways to bring at least some students back into the classroom. She said she is reviewing the states’ options to push Warwick to change policy.

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However, the state’s two major teachers unions are both pushing for other districts to go in the same direction as Warwick.

“The governor referred to distance-learning as throwing in the towel,” Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island union, tweeted after the briefing. “She owes an apology to all the teachers and education support professionals who have worked so hard to prepare for it and all the parents who have already chosen it for their children this fall.”

“Educators want to return to our classrooms and students,” said Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro. “In-person learning is and always will be the best approach for educators and for the social-emotional health of students. But we refuse to be another Georgia, Indiana or Mississippi.”

While acknowledging teachers’ concerns, Raimondo argued, “A general fear of the virus is not a justifiable reason not to go to work.”

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Another issue is transportation, amid continued concern about the potential health risks of crowded school buses. Raimondo said a team of experts is exploring “creative options” for getting kids to school, from staggered start times to encouragement of biking and walking.

The state has secured eight rapid-testing machines and joined a 10-state consortium to jointly purchase test kits in an effort to ensure that students and teachers can be tested quickly if someone contracts coronavirus. The latest goal is to turn around test results in 24 to 48 hours by Aug. 31.

“When we’re up and running with schools, we’re going to have the testing capacity necessary,” Raimondo said.

Also on Tuesday, the governors of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey updated their travel advisories to remove Rhode Island, meaning Rhode Islanders traveling to those states no longer have to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Travel/Beach Restrictions: Here’s what you need to know for RI, Mass. »

While Raimondo characterized that as good news, she expressed concern that residents are not complying with the 15-person cap on social gatherings.

“A month and a half ago Rhode Island was leading the nation in how low our prevalence was,” she said. “Thank God, we are still in good shape. … But we’re not where we need to be. We’re not as good as we were, and we’re not as good as we could be if everyone followed the rules.”

At the same time, Rhode Island remained on the list of “higher risk states” that fall under Gov. Charlie Baker’s travel restrictions in Massachusetts. Raimondo said she has discussed that with Baker, but he has told her, “The rules are the rules.”

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No new restrictions were announced Wednesday, but the Rhode Island State Police is stepping up enforcement. A new hotline to report potential violations that launched last week has gotten about 400 calls and investigated 76 of them, finding four violations, Raimondo said. Repeat violators or those who refuse to disperse can be fined $500 each.

“We’re serious about this, folks,” she said.

A review of coronavirus cases showed roughly half of those who’ve tested positive recently had gone to work despite feeling sick, according to Raimondo. The governor reiterated the need for sick people to stay home, and said if workers feel pressured to go into work they should call the governor’s office or the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.

“It’s actually your civic duty to stay home if you’re sick,” she said.

The Health Department estimates that the average infected individual exposed 5.4 people to COVID-19 at social gatherings during late July and early August, according to Alexander-Scott.

Alluding to photos circulating on social media, Raimondo said, “Block Island is not doing well.” Officials met Tuesday to discuss the situation regarding the summer tourist destination, and said she’s considering taking further action to get it under control.

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The state also needs to hire more contact tracers beyond the roughly 200 it currently has, Raimondo said.

The governor downplayed the odds of implementing President Trump’s executive order, signed over the weekend, that suggests boosting unemployment benefits by $300 if states kick in another $100. She said there has been no guidance on where the money would come from or how it should be implemented, and urged Congress to reach a deal on a new relief package.

Describing the president’s order as “smoke and mirrors,” Raimondo said, “I haven’t found a governor in America who says they’re going to be able to administer this program.”

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