Key takeaways from this week’s briefing:
- ‘Pause’ will stay in place through Dec. 20 in RI
- Gyms reopen Dec. 21, indoor dining will expand
- $30M more for businesses, unemployed
- COVID-19 vaccinations could start next week
- Doc: ‘The beginning of the end of the pandemic’
- Quarantine time cut to 10 days, down from 14
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Thursday she will extend Rhode Island’s coronavirus “pause” for an additional week, then ease some restrictions Dec. 21 while leaving others in place, as the state continues to set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” Raimondo said during her weekly briefing on the pandemic. “It’s getting scary in Rhode Island.”
Data released Thursday by the R.I. Department of Health showed the state set two new records for hospitalizations on Monday, with a total of 476 COVID-19 patients in the state’s hospitals and 73 patients admitted on a single day. The state also said 14 more people with COVID-19 had died.
“We can’t stay at this pace,” Raimondo said. “You cannot have 70 people going into the hospital every day.”
Yet there was also a glimmer of hope in the Department of Health case data, as the seven-day average of new cases fell to 1,190 a day, down from a peak of 1,308 a day on Sunday. The test positivity rate was 7%, down from nearly 11% on Sunday.
Raimondo said she remained alarmed by the situation.
“It’s pretty simple why it’s happening,” she said. “People continue to not follow the rules, and as a result more people are getting sick, more people are dying, more people are losing their jobs.”
She reiterated that Rhode Islanders should wear masks anytime they are with people from outside their own households, and should limit social gatherings to people they live with, though some exceptions have been provided for individuals who live alone.
“Stop thinking about what you can’t do and start thinking about what you can do to protect your household,” she said.
The governor said she sees some evidence that the current two-week “pause” in activity — which has included new restrictions such as the closure of gyms and further limits on restaurant capacity — is having an effect. She pointed to R.I. Department of Transportation data that indicates people are moving around the state less, suggesting decreased mobility.
“The data is starting to trend in the right direction,” she said.
In light of that, Raimondo announced that she will extend the current “pause” by an additional week, through Dec. 20. Starting on Dec. 21, some restrictions will be eased, but the guidance for the rest of the year will be to limit activity and “protect your household.”
Gyms and sports facilities will be allowed to reopen on Dec. 21, with a capacity limit of one person per 150 square feet of space. Restaurants will be allowed to increase capacity for indoor dining from 33% to 50%, though the limit will still be one household per table. Bars will stay closed.
Detailed regulations about the restrictions starting Dec. 21 are supposed to be posted early next week at reopeningri.com.
Due to the one-week extension of the “pause” period, Raimondo said she is also allocating more federal CARES Act money to roughly $30 million in additional relief payments to small businesses affected by the pause and individuals who are unemployed, as well as more funding for front-line workers in congregate care facilities. The bonus unemployment benefit is $200 a week.
The first round of checks to businesses, totaling about $10 million, will be sent out to about 500 companies on Friday, according to Raimondo. She said about 1,800 businesses have applied so far. The deadline to apply is now Monday, and more information is on the Division of Taxation website.
Referring to Rhode Island’s $1.25 billion allocation from the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, Raimondo said that at this point, “I will essentially have allocated all of the federal stimulus monies that we have received from the federal government.” She again urged Congress to pass a new relief bill that provides funding for small businesses, the unemployed and state governments.
Raimondo said testing continues to expand, and again urged residents to use the website portal.ri.gov to sign up for an appointment. Starting in January, on-site asymptomatic testing for all students and staff will be available for any school district that wants it. (The state is currently piloting this K-12 surveillance program in three districts.)
The governor yet again lambasted school districts that are shifting to fully remote learning, reiterating her strongly held view that online-only class does severe damage to students, particularly lower-income ones. Under questioning from a 12 News reporter, however, she acknowledged some are doing so due to pandemic-triggered staffing shortages, and her comments outraged some educators.
Dr. Philip Chan, a consultant medical director at the Department of Health, provided an upbeat look at the outlook for a COVID-19 vaccine, the first of which is set to be authorized for emergency use by the FDA on Thursday. He expects Rhode Island to start receiving about 32,000 doses a month once both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved.
“This is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” Chan declared.
Rhode Islanders could begin getting immunized as soon as next week, according to Chan, who provided a four-phase timeline showing when different groups will be eligible to receive a vaccine over the coming months. Shots will be administered at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and hospitals, not by the state.
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Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott also provided updated state quarantine rules for those who are exposed to coronavirus.
In light of new U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance, Alexander-Scott said the amount of time an individual needs to quarantine has been reduced from 14 days to 10 days. And if the individual received a negative test at least five days after being exposed, the quarantine can be shortened to seven days.
Looking ahead to the holidays, Raimondo acknowledged that Jewish Rhode Islanders will be celebrating a scaled-down Hanukkah, which begins this evening, and those who celebrate Christmas will be doing the same. She urged residents to plan to gather only with immediate family and avoid travel.