Key takeaways from this week’s COVID-19 briefing
- Sharp warning after states target RI travelers
- Bars ordered to close at 11 p.m. starting Friday
- Arriving visitors must fill out compliance form
- Testing expands; travelers, young people targeted
- 3 districts currently ineligible for in-person school
- New hotline to alert state police of large gatherings
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Department of Health reported 84 new COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island on Wednesday, as Gov. Gina Raimondo announced new restrictions and multiple neighboring states impose travel restrictions on Ocean State residents.
The department also reported 79 Rhode Islanders hospitalized with the disease, with 14 of them in intensive care, roughly in line with the level over the past week. One more Rhode Islander died with the disease on Tuesday, bringing the state’s cumulative death toll to 1,012 since March 19.
Rhode Islanders learned Tuesday they’ll have to quarantine for 14 days if they travel to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York or New Jersey. Rhode Island officials have argued some national rankings are inflating the state’s positivity rate, which is driving the other states’ decisions.
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At her weekly coronavirus briefing, Raimondo argued that in some respects the new travel restrictions were “a good thing.” She noted that it would mean fewer people coming and going between the Northeastern states.
“It should certainly be a wake-up call to the people of Rhode Island that we need to do better,” Raimondo said, adding, “If we don’t follow the rules, things like this will happen.”
“We are at a turning point right now. … We’re teetering right now,” she said.
Raimondo said she made no effort to lobby the other governors against the new restrictions, saying she “wasn’t entirely surprised” in light of the state’s case count ticking up.
Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said case investigations found roughly 12% of the people who tested positive in the last week had recently traveled out of state, including to Florida or elsewhere in the Northeast. The cases mostly represented Rhode Islanders traveling to other states rather than travelers coming into Rhode Island, she added.
Rhode Islanders who have already planned vacations in the states with the new restrictions will be able to get rapid tests, hopefully within 24 to 48 hours, at portal.ri.gov starting Wednesday afternoon. A special section is being added to the website for people visiting another state to get appointments at the R.I. Convention Center testing site.
Raimondo again singled out bars as a problem, and announced that starting Friday all bars will be required to close by 11 p.m. She said the state’s data shows cases are spreading at bars, and inspectors have found them to be “OK, not great” at enforcing the rules, with an estimated 20% not separating bartenders from patrons.
More restrictions could be announced next week if current trends continue, such as closing beaches or reducing capacity in restaurants, she added. “I’m really trying to hold off on that,” Raimondo said.
The governor also reiterated her concerns about the virus spreading at social gatherings, emphasizing that gatherings of more than 15 people are banned, and she urged people to limit their interactions to the same 15 people.
“We have to go back to where we were in April, in May — getting really serious about this,” she said.
The R.I. State Police have created a new “Crush COVID” unit to crack down on large gatherings, and problems can be reported to a hotline at 401-764-5554. Individuals who violate the gatherings ban are subject to a $500 fine.
Raimondo flashed frustration during a question-and-answer session with reporters. “Do you know how frustrating it is that there’s still so many pool parties and backyard barbecues and wedding showers and just community gatherings of 30 people?” she said. “Go tell that to the guy in Block Island who’s about to lose his business. Like, come on, people. Be a little considerate.”
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Meanwhile, under Rhode Island’s own current travel restrictions, people arriving from 33 states with high case rates are currently required to either self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival or have had a negative COVID-19 test within the prior 72 hours.
Enforcement of that policy is being stepped up this weekend: beginning Sunday, anyone from those states who checks into a hotel or a rental property will need to sign a certificate of compliance. Raimondo said the policy is modeled after one implemented in Maine.
Testing has continued to be a pain point, with complaints locally and nationally about long delays for individuals to receive their results. Raimondo announced two significant developments related to testing policy at Wednesday’s briefing.
Raimondo said the state has signed contracts with two new test processing companies, Accu Reference Medical Lab and North Kingstown-based Dominion Diagnostics, that are promising 48-hour turnarounds for Rhode Island tests. The companies have initially committed to each running 1,000 Rhode Island tests per day, and Dominion says it will increase that to 7,000 by next month.
The state’s daily testing capacity is expected to reach 9,000 per day once Dominion ramps up.
In addition, Raimondo said the state’s testing portal will now offer tests to all asymptomatic individuals ages 18 to 39, a new policy she said will target the groups that are being less careful and less likely to get tested. They will be able to sign up for tests shortly at portal.ri.gov.
Alexander-Scott encouraged young people to get tested frequently.
“If you are negative, that is just one point in time,” she said. “It does not mean that you don’t have to worry ever again about COVID-19. You could go to the next gathering without wearing a mask that same night or the next day and be exposed, and be at risk for yourself or the loved ones around you.”
Some people who test positive are also refusing to share information about who they’ve been with recently to assist with contact tracing efforts, according to Alexander-Scott. She said all information provided is confidential and plays a crucial role in helping the state combat the virus.
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Schools remain a hot topic, with some parents and teachers continuing to express concern about the governor’s stated preference to resume in-person learning when classes start Aug. 31. Raimondo laid out five school benchmarks that will need to meet for in-person learning; Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls would not currently be allowed to do so based on their coronavirus case levels.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said state leaders are working with districts to craft unique plans to help with the return to school. Some plan to put up tents outside where students could eat lunch and get fresh air, she said.
“This is hard,” she said, adding, “The numbers will dictate how we move forward.”
Asked specifically about the outlook for Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, Infante-Green said, “It’s our job to get them there.” She said state officials are spending time with leaders in those communities to try and determine what else they need in order to allow in-person learning.