Key takeaways from Wednesday’s briefing:
- 2 more deaths, 987 total
- Decline in number of new cases, hospitalizations
- Parking capacity cut to 25% at two beaches
- $100 million relief fund for RI small businesses
- New money for housing, education, training
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — New data released Wednesday offered a more hopeful picture of the coronavirus situation in Rhode Island compared with the day before, as the number of cases and hospitalizations both declined.
The R.I. Health Department reported 52 new cases on Wednesday, nearly half as many as the 102 reported Tuesday, which had been the first day in a month with over 100. The daily test positivity rate for Wednesday came out to 1.8%, a significant decline from Tuesday’s 3.5%.
Another two Rhode Islanders have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Health Department, bringing the total to 987.
During Gov. Gina Raimondo’s weekly briefing, Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said one of the people who died was in their 60s and the other was in their 80s.
In addition, 59 patients are currently hospitalized – a decline of 10 from the number reported Tuesday – of which five are in the ICU and three are on ventilators.
Despite the improvement in the numbers, the core message of Wednesday’s briefing was: don’t let your guard down. Raimondo warned that if people start getting lax about wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large groups, Rhode Island could see a full-on surge in cases, which would endanger people’s lives and livelihoods.
“Our fortunes can change very quickly,” she said. “Remember this: it took us just a few weeks to fly up the curve.”
Raimondo asked Rhode Islanders to readjust their mindsets, saying the most concerning thing she’s been hearing is that the crisis is behind us.
“We’re not through it,” she said. “We’re not even close to halfway through it, so now is not the time to say, ‘We did this. Good job. Let’s move on.’ Absolutely not. We’re doing it now, we’re living it, we’re going to be living it every day.”
She put a particular focus on the 20- to 29-year-old age group, saying that while the overall positive test rate was below 2%, it was roughly 7% for Rhode Islanders in their 20s.
New municipal data released Wednesday by the Health Department showed Rhode Island’s seaside communities posting some of the fastest growth rates for new cases.
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With that in mind, Raimondo announced the parking capacity at Misquamicut and Scarborough state beaches will be reduced to 25% starting on Thursday to address overcrowding.
“I expect that means the parking lots are going to be full by 9:30 in the morning,” she said. “If you’re lucky enough to be able to walk to one of those beaches, that’s fine, but I’ll tell you this: don’t think that you can just park illegally on the streets nearby and walk to the beach, because we are going to seriously crack down on that starting this weekend.”
Even with reduced parking, state beaches saw 50,000 more vehicles last month compared to last June, according to the governor. She also said restrictions could be issued for more beaches and parks in the future, should crowding be a recurring problem. There will also be more enforcement at beaches starting this weekend.
“We’re going to adjust as we go,” Raimondo said. “People are going to say, ‘What about this beach? What about that park?’ I want to be flexible and find that right balance between allowing people to be outside and also keeping people safe.”
Alexander-Scott added, “We are absolutely seeing social gatherings as a source of these new cases, whether they’re social gatherings on the beach, where people are close together and not masking, or social gatherings on boats, or social gatherings in homes and other places. We have to address this together with kindness and consideration.”
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The governor expressed concern about multiple reports of customers without masks being abusive toward employees at restaurants and other establishments when told they need to wear them. Police and the National Guard may step up assistance with enforcement, she said.
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Amid mounting pressure from Rhode Island’s small business community, Raimondo announced $200 million of the state’s federal CARES Act funds will be used for both immediate and long-term economic development, focused on small business relief, education, training, child care and housing.
She said $100 million will be used to support the state’s smallest businesses, which includes $50 million in direct cash assistance for reopening expenses like cleaning supplies and plexiglass, as well as fixed costs such as rent. Of that, 20% will be set aside for minority-owned businesses.
“That amount of money is not even a drop in the bucket, relative to the need,” the governor said. “So we have to be smart about it, and we have to target it best to the folks who are hurting the most.”
Grants of up to $15,000 will be available to businesses that can demonstrate a decline in revenue as a result of the pandemic. She also announced $26 million in funding to help small businesses restructure their business models.
“Our goal is twofold: get the money on the street and into your pocket as fast as possible, but also to do it right,” Raimondo said.
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Raimondo said applications will be ready in a couple of weeks and posted on Rhode Island Commerce’s website along with additional information. Money is expected to go out about a month after that.
“We’ve heard a lot from small businesses that yes, they need some money to keep the lights on, but they also need a hand to adjust their business model for this new economy,” Raimondo said. They may need help setting up an online store or giving employees a way to work remotely, she said.
“To small businesses: hang in there, and I hope this is the beginning of what will be your resurgence as we climb out of this crisis and come back to being even better, stronger Rhode Island,” she added.
In addition, the Health Department said it is starting a new round of antibody testing in partnership with the CDC focused on employees in certain industries, including first responders, Health Department staff, correctional facility workers, hospital workers and nursing home staff. Individuals who want to participate can sign up on Quest Diagnostics’ website.
Alexander-Scott acknowledged continued complaints about delays in receiving COVID-19 test results, repeating that Rhode Island is suffering from the same delays occurring nationally due to the growing outbreaks in the South and West. She said her team is “laser-focused” on the problem.
Tests are generally taking between one and six days on average to come back, but the wait is even longer in some cases, according to Alexander-Scott. The testing lag is hampering the state’s contact tracing efforts.
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