PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Wednesday that Rhode Island public schools will remain closed through April 3 to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, after the state identified 10 new positive cases of the disease.
“I’ve never been more proud to be a Rhode Islander,” Raimondo said during her daily coronavirus briefing. “The expressions of kindness and patience and generosity that I am receiving daily — it’s overwhelming, it’s heartening, it gives me hope, and it’s what lets me say with confidence that we’re going to get through this.”
“It will be hard. It will be longer than any of us wants,” she said. “But there’s recovery at the end of this.”
Schools have already been closed in Rhode Island this week after Raimondo decided to move up their April vacations so educators could prepare for a longer closure. They are expected to offer remote learning plans during the next two weeks while students continue to remain at the home.
“This isn’t vacation,” Raimondo said. Speaking directly to students, she emphasized the decision did not mean two weeks of vacation, and that students should expect to learn at home and do homework.
“This is a tough decision, and this will be tough to execute,” Raimondo said. “Many other states have just thrown in the towel. … I’m not yet willing to throw in the towel because I think some learning is better than no learning.” She thanked teachers and parents for being flexible.
A decision will be made later about whether schools will reopen after April 3. “I think it’s very unlikely,” Raimondo acknowledged. “But we’re going to get through the next two weeks.”
No decision has been made on child care centers past Friday, with Raimondo saying they’re being advised on what to do on “a case-by-case basis.”
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On the 10 new COVID-19 patients, R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said they are seven women and three men, and they range in age from their 20s to their 70s. Four are hospitalized, though one could be discharged Wednesday. They had traveled to countries including Iceland, Amsterdam, Spain, England and France.
Alexander-Scott said the rise in cases was expected. “People should heed our recommendations,” she said. “This is not an overreaction. This is information that needs to be taken seriously.”
“We wouldn’t be canceling school and shutting down the economy unless we thought that that were absolutely 100% necessary,” Raimondo said. “What we’re doing all day in consultation with experts is looking at the models to try to figure out, what does the ramp look like?” The state is trying to buy more time “to ready the system for the cases,” she added.
Adequate supply of medical equipment, including but not limited to testing kits, continues to be a challenge. Raimondo and Alexander-Scott said they continue to press the federal government to send more swabs as well as more masks and other personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers.
On unemployment benefits, the state revealed Wednesday that nearly 20,000 people have filed for either unemployment or temporarily disability benefits in the last eight days due to COVID-19.
Raimondo said the “unprecedented” increase will strain the state’s unemployment insurance fund, but she still urged anyone who is out of work to apply online for benefits and to be confident they’ll be paid.
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On utilities, Raimondo said the R.I. Public Utilities Commission has issued an emergency order mandating that all regulated utilities – electric, gas, water and sewer – cannot terminate service for any reason other than safety during the COVID-19 emergency.
“If you’re in a position to pay your bills, please pay your bills,” Raimondo said. “This is not a blanket excuse to not pay your bills.”
Talking about individual businesses, Alexander-Scott said Health Department officials “strongly urge” all gyms to close, noting that many already have. She said hair salons and barbershops can remain open, but should work to keep the number of customers at any one time low.
“When in doubt, just stay home,” she said.
On health insurance, Raimondo said she signed a new executive order on Wednesday requiring all insurers doing business in Rhode Island to pay for “all medically appropriate tele-health visits” at the same rates as office visits. She said the executive order on that topic she signed last weekend was not broad enough.
For health professionals, Alexander-Scott announced emergency regulations that allow any health professional who has a valid license in another state to get a temporary 90-day license to practice in Rhode Island, as well.
On the state budget, Raimondo said “revenue is going to take a serious hit” due to the sudden slowdown in the economy and the casinos being closed. She said options are being examined to tap the capital markets for more cash in the short term. She said restaurants still need to remit their sales tax receipts to the state on Friday, but said individual establishments will be worked on a case-by-case basis. She also ruled out pausing truck tolls.
One bit of budget relief came in Washington, where the U.S. Senate voted to approve the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that passed the House early Saturday morning. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s office said the bill could mean an estimated $150 million in additional federal funding for Rhode Island’s Medicaid program.
On philanthropy, Raimondo announced that Bradford Soap Works of West Warwick is donating 70,000 bars of soap to Rhode Islanders that will be distributed through the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and Family Service of RI. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence is distributing Stop & Shop gift cards to people who need help buying food, and a COVID-19 Respond Fund has been set up by the Rhode Island Foundation and the United Way.
“We’re going to get through this, but I don’t know how long it will be,” Raimondo said. “This is months not weeks.”