10 more deaths, 107 new cases; Raimondo to cut state workers’ hours

Coronavirus
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Key takeaways from Wednesday’s briefing:

  • 10 new deaths, 742 total
  • Raimondo, General Assembly to cut workers’ hours
  • 45,000 downloads for state’s Crush COVID RI mobile app
  • National Guard to remain activated until August
  • Governor offers guidance for upcoming protests

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Another 10 people have died with COVID-19 in Rhode Island, officials said Wednesday, as Gov. Gina Raimondo unveiled a plan to cut state employee hours to help close a projected $800 million deficit driven by the public health crisis.

The governor said state employees are encouraged to participate in the voluntary WorkShare program, which uses unemployment insurance money to help pay for employees who work fewer hours. The program is voluntary, she added.

The goal is for between 25% and 50% of the Raimondo administration workforce to participate in the program, totaling about 1,000 to 2,000 employees and saving the state an estimated $5 million on the lower end, according to Department of Administration director Brett Smiley.

Raimondo said the decision to reduce employees’ hours — which would translate into two fewer days per week for full-time employees — was spurred by the unprecedented deficit that’s emerged in the current and next fiscal years as revenue has slumped during the pandemic.

The governor said Wednesday the deficit totaled $800 million for the current and next fiscal years combined, although the House Fiscal Office has pegged it even higher, at roughly $900 million.

“The deficit that is currently projected is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen before,” Raimondo said during a news conference.

Raimondo remains optimistic that Congress will come up with a new federal spending bill with funds earmarked for state and local budget relief before the end of June, but she is nonetheless preparing for the possibility that it doesn’t happen.

“If we have to close the deficit without additional federal aid, it will be devastating,” Raimondo added. “There will undoubtedly be furloughs and layoffs — extensively.”

For some employees, the WorkShare program could mean more money than their current earnings, as participants are eligible to receive an extra $600 per week through the federal spending bill known as the CARES Act passed in March.

But Smiley noted that the extra money is set to expire after July, and people who opt to work less through the program must still participate for the full 12-week period, which begins June 15 and ends Sept. 6.

Some employees — including those working in 24/7 operations and members of the COVID-19 response team — will not be allowed to participate in the program.

Also, Raimondo said it only affects state employees who work within her administration, although she’s encouraged other officeholders and branches of government to participate.

Following the governor’s briefing, spokespeople for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the General Assembly would also participate in the program.

“This will be mandatory for all full-time legislative employees who meet the salary guidelines,” House spokesperson Larry Berman and Senate spokesperson Greg Pare said in a joint statement. “The Senate president and speaker encourage all branches of government that meet the requisite guidelines to participate as well.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Mckee plans to have his office also participate in the program, according to spokesperson Andrea Palagi.

Spokespeople for the judiciary and the offices of the attorney general, secretary of state and general treasurer all said they have been notified about the program and are taking it under consideration.

A similar effort to reduce hours was recently announced in Providence, but the city’s program will not be voluntary.

In COVID-related health news, the newly announced deaths bring the total to 742 in Rhode Island, after another 107 people tested positive for the disease.

The Health Department also reported COVID-19 hospitalizations remained relatively stable in Rhode Island, at 189 people.

Seven more COVID-19 patients were reported admitted to the hospital, while eight were discharged, according to state data. Among those currently hospitalized, 44 are in intensive care, 30 on ventilators.

The 107 new positive tests come on the same day 2,717 people tested negative for the disease, resulting in a positivity rate of 3.8%. The governor has hailed the low positivity rate for two days, saying that’s a sign the disease isn’t spreading too quickly, even as the state nears one month of reopening.

Raimondo made a renewed effort to encourage Rhode Islanders to download the state’s Crush COVID RI mobile app, which both connects users to services and has the option to track users’ locations.

The governor said she’s received a lot of feedback from people who remain concerned that the app will access personal information through their cell phones, which is deterring some from downloading the app.

The governor reiterated that the location tracking option is completely voluntary and the app has no ability to access personal information — including contacts — on users’ phones. People are still expected to separately keep a contact-tracing notebook to keep track of everyone who someone interacts with throughout each day.

As of Wednesday, only about 45,000 people had downloaded the state’s app, representing only about 5% of the Rhode Island’s adult population.

“Please, I’m asking you to consider opting in,” Raimondo said, underscoring how helpful the information could be if someone becomes sick and the state has to try and reconstruct their whereabouts in recent days.

“Contact tracing is as important as anything that we are going to do because it will allow us to catch outbreaks before they happen,” Raimondo added.

On the topic of COVID-19 outbreaks, Raimondo reiterated her concern that the recent protests — sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police — could result in a future flareup of the disease.

The governor emphasized that she is supportive of protests, but is encouraging people to keep in mind that the virus is still spreading. She’s asked Health Department staff to go to future protests to hand out masks and public health information.

“The virus is ever-present,” Raimondo said. “It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t go away.”

For people who live with older adults, or people with underlying health conditions, Raimondo said she’s “begging you to exercise extreme caution.”

Thousands of Rhode Islanders gathered to protest peacefully last weekend, which Raimondo praised. But the protests were followed by violent unrest on Monday, spurring the governor to activate the R.I. National Guard to help safeguard against future attacks.

The state’s militia will remain activated until Aug. 31 thanks to federal funds, Raimondo added.

Black Lives Matter organizers are attending another peaceful protest scheduled for Friday, and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott offered some reminders about how people can try to remain safe while participating.

“Participating safely means wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing and being aware of the high-touch objects in your environment,” Alexander-Scott said, adding it’s important that people monitor for COVID-19 related symptoms and keep track of their contacts.

When asked if she would attend, Raimondo said “maybe,” although she acknowledged that going would mean she would have to violate her own social distancing order that limits gatherings sizes to no more than 15 people per group.

“We’re in a tough spot on this one,” Raimondo said.

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