PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee signed two new executive orders Thursday, one of which requires that masks be worn in schools when students and teachers return to the classroom.
The decision follows weeks of back-and-forth on the mask issue as McKee was previously reluctant to issue a statewide mandate, saying he believed it should be left up to the individual school districts. But amid the surge of infections fueled by the delta variant, not to mention pressure from his fellow state leaders, McKee changed his tune, saying it’s crucial to do everything possible to protect children and their ability to learn in schools, especially since those under the age of 12 aren’t yet eligible to get vaccinated.
“Until we can vaccinate more students, we need all students in masks,” he said.
“Masks work. They help in limiting or preventing the transmission of COVID-19,” R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott added. “Sadly, we are seeing across the country schools with loose masking policies or no masking policies are seeing outbreaks of COVID-19. We want to learn from that.”
On Tuesday, McKee said he planned to work with any district that hadn’t already followed his recommendation to require masks, but the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted later that day to reject any plans that didn’t include a mask mandate.
Video Now: McKee’s remarks (story continues below)
With the second executive order, McKee formally declared a new state of emergency through Sept. 18 due to the effects of the highly contagious delta variant. Since the variant arrived in Rhode Island last month, the state has seen a significant increase in new COVID-19 cases, and more recently, hospitalizations have started to mount.
The cumulative number of cases linked to the delta variant more than doubled on Thursday to 246. That’s only a sample size, however, since the Health Department sequences a portion of new cases each week to screen for the variant.
Health officials estimate more than 75% of all new infections in Rhode Island can be attributed to the delta variant.
Video Now: Dr. Alexander-Scott’s remarks (story continues below)
The Health Department reported 314 new infections on Thursday along with four additional deaths.
On Wednesday, the state surpassed 100 hospitalizations for the first time since May 11, but that dipped back down to 95 on Thursday.
The number of patients in the intensive care unit has also started to climb. As of Thursday, 17 people were in the ICU and eight were on ventilators.
The Health Department believes the “delta peak” will happen in early fall. Tom McCarthy, who leads the state’s COVID-19 response team, said the Cranston field hospital will be on standby should it need to be reactivated as a result.
While masks will be mandated in schools this fall, McKee said he’s not ready to reissue a universal mask mandate, but that could change based on the state’s COVID-19 data. The focus now, he said, is getting the vaccine to the more than 182,000 eligible Rhode Islanders who are not yet vaccinated.
To reach unvaccinated students and teachers, a series of school-based clinics are being held in every district.
Last week, McKee announced that in an effort to protect vulnerable populations, all employees of state-licensed health care facilities and providers are required to get fully vaccinated by Oct. 1.
Video Now: McCarthy’s remarks
As the governor’s briefing was being held Thursday afternoon, a large group of people protested that decision outside the state house.
McKee also called on the R.I. House and Senate to reconvene immediately to restore some of the emergency powers that were scaled back by lawmakers earlier this year.
12 News reached out to the leaders of both chambers to find out if they have any plans to reconvene, or whether they were given any advance warning about McKee’s announcement.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said McKee reached out to them prior to the briefing, but “made no mention of reconvening the General Assembly, only that he was exploring declaring another state of emergency relative to the delta variant and current set of circumstances.”
“We wish Governor McKee had been more forthright in our conversations,” the statement said. “Governor McKee has mischaracterized the provisions contained in the budget, which he signed into law. He retains all of his executive authority relative to health and safety.
“Furthermore, as he believes the current circumstances require a new state of emergency, he has the full authority to issue one, and we support it,” they continued. “We will continue to work with the governor to protect Rhode Island residents and businesses.”
Video Now: Infante-Green’s remarks (story continues below)
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker hasn’t taken action to mandate masks in public schools, but did mandate vaccines for all state workers.
Roughly 44,000 workers are state employed and risk being fired if they are not vaccinated by mid-October.
“As the largest employer in Massachusetts, we felt it was important for us to step forward and make a statement about the value and importance of getting vaccinated,” Baker said.
Video Now: Q&A portion of briefing