23 more deaths in RI; gyms, hair salons, indoor dining could reopen June 1


Key Takeaways from Friday’s briefing:

  • 23 new deaths; 579 total
  • Gyms, salons, indoor dining could reopen June 1
  • Raimondo says ‘no’ to Trump on opening churches faster
  • Gathering sizes could triple to 15 people June 1
  • No changes to current rules for Memorial Day weekend

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Another 23 Rhode Islanders have died after contracting COVID-19, the R.I. Health Department reported Friday, as Gov. Gina Raimondo announced gyms, hair salons and indoor dining could start to reopen with restrictions on June 1.

The governor said she’s confident Rhode Island will be ready to move into the second phase of her reopening plan that day judging by current trends on a series of health indicators that have not spiked since she lifted the stay-at-home order May 8.

But she urged people not to break current social-distancing restrictions during Memorial Day weekend, saying the June 1 reopening will only be possible if hospitalizations and other metrics remain steady next week.

“Based on everything I know today, we are on track,” Raimondo said. “If those trends continue, it is my intention to move to Phase 2 on June 1.”

The new deaths announced Friday bring Rhode Island’s coronavirus death toll to 579, with all the latest fatalities being people in their 60s or older. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott described deaths as “a lagging indicator” in terms of the scale of the pandemic locally.

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The department also announced 170 new COVID-19 cases, slightly fewer than on Thursday, for a test positivity rate of 4.5%. More than 13,700 Rhode Islanders have tested positive for the disease since March 1.

The number of Rhode Islanders currently hospitalized with COVID-19 fell to 242, down by 10 from a day earlier. People currently in intensive care stayed level at 56, with 40 of them on ventilators.

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With several of her executive orders set to expire on Saturday, Raimondo extended those mandates until June 1, which is when she expects to move into Phase 2 of her reopening plan.

Phase 2 will bring with it a host of changes to current mandates, including allowing up to 15 people per gathering size instead of the current limit of five. (The limit remains at five until June 1.) All state parks and beaches will reopen with restrictions on parking limits and social distancing.

Many businesses that have been forced to shutter for weeks will also be allowed to reopen under new restrictions, including barbershops and salons, gyms and fitness centers and indoor dining.

“My focus is going to be on work,” Raimondo said. “Getting people back to work safely and responsibly.”

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The state will issue specific industry-by-industry guidelines next week, but Raimondo said businesses should expect to reopen with strict capacity limits, new cleaning regimens and mask-wearing requirements.

For example, restaurants will be required to limit indoor-dining capacity to 50%, in addition to outdoor dining, which has been allowed during Phase 1.

“I hope 50% is a good beginning,” Raimondo said.

In response to the new announcement about restaurants, Rick Simone of the Federal Hill Commerce Association and The Ocean State Coalition, a large group of restaurateurs, said he was glad to see the recommendations and needs of the industry were being recognized by state leaders.

“We look forward to working on the final restrictions that will govern Phase 2 so that all restaurants may be prepared to welcome our guests back in a safe and enjoyable environment,” Simone said in a statement.

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Barbershops and hairdressers could reopen June 1, as well, but with restrictions on how many customers can be in the shop at one time, along with strict cleaning requirements.

“We have to become comfortable with these new norms,” Raimondo said. “But the good news is that we can do it. We can get a haircut.”

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Businesses in office spaces will be allowed to bring back one-third of their workforce, Raimondo said, adding that companies should still allow employees to work from home if at all possible.

“If you can work from home, work from home,” Raimondo said.

Gyms and fitness studios will be allowed to resume with restrictions on participants, and the governor urged people to social distance and to keep a consistent schedule to avoid seeing too many different people. Outdoor classes will be encouraged.

“Try to stick with the same class,” Raimondo said.

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Places of worship, such as churches, temples and mosques, are slated to resume services at 25% capacity next weekend. During Raimondo’s press briefing, however, President Trump called on governors to allow places of worship to resume this coming weekend.

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House, where he didn’t take questions. He said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.

When asked about the president’s comments, Raimondo said she would discuss the topic with her legal counsel, but said she has no plans to change her May 30 opening date for churches.

“We’re going to stick with what we have,” she said, adding that Trump has previously made it clear that reopening plans will be left to state leadership. She said to her knowledge the White House had not alerted her office to the president’s planned announcement.

Phase 2 of the reopening plan will come with some significant changes to travel rules, too.

Raimondo said people coming into Rhode Island from other states will no longer be required to self-quarantine for two weeks — unless they are traveling from a place that remains under a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. People who are traveling into Rhode Island from abroad will still be required to self-quarantine for two weeks, however.

The broad changes coming in Phase 2 mark a significant relaxing of social distancing mandates that have been in place for nearly three months, which Raimondo acknowledged could cause some anxiety among people who are concerned about the dangers of the lingering virus.

“I’m living it with you and I think it’s time and it’s safe,” Raimondo said, specifically addressing people who might have concerns.

But she also suggested local elected officials, business owners and faith leaders who don’t feel comfortable with the easing restrictions can wait and make their own decisions about reopening — so long as it doesn’t go beyond the state limitations.

“You know what’s best for your community,” Raimondo said. “If you feel the need to take it slower, then by all means, do it slower.”

Raimondo reiterated that there would be more specific guidance for individual industries offered next week, but said other activities that could resume during Phase 2 include visiting the zoo, playing mini golf, renting boats, visiting public gardens and touring historical sites.

But all sizable outdoor recreational or entertainment events that lead to large gatherings, such as concerts and festivals, will remain closed. “That, unfortunately, is not going to be back for a while,” Raimondo said.

The Friday news conference marks Raimondo’s final publicly scheduled briefing related to COVID-19 until after Memorial Day. However, the governor is scheduled to hold a Memorial Day ceremony on Monday at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

List: What’s open right now in Rhode Island, Massachusetts »

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