Key Takeaways from Wednesday’s briefing:

  • 143 new cases
  • 21 new deaths, 16 at nursing homes
  • Hospitalizations continue to decrease
  • New rules for gyms and fitness centers released
  • Indoor dining rules coming Thursday

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Another 21 Rhode Islanders have died with COVID-19, according to new data released by the R.I. Department of Health Wednesday, bringing the state’s coronavirus death toll to 655.

There were 143 new cases reported out of nearly 2,500 tests, for a daily positive rate of less than 6%.

The number of people in the hospital declined again to 218, with 49 in intensive care and 35 of those on ventilators.

Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said 16 of the 21 newly reported deaths were associated with nursing homes.

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State leaders on Wednesday published new guidance for fitness centers and gyms, which will be permitted to open on Monday when Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan is expected to begin. The strict guidelines include keeping people and machines six feet or more apart, banning water fountains and locker rooms, and requiring masks be worn.

At her daily briefing, Gov. Gina Raimondo addressed concerns about being able to properly breathe while doing cardiovascular activity in a mask. She said “vigorous exercise” could be done without a mask only if the person is 14 feet away from others, more than double the usual guidance. She also encouraged people to seek out face coverings designed for exercise.

Alexander-Scott said people who are breathing heavily from exercise or projecting their voice while singing can spread the virus farther than six feet while not wearing a mask.

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When Phase 2 starts, the state plans to also allow salons and barbershops to open along with indoor dining. Guidance for the salons will be posted on Wednesday night, Raimondo said, and indoor dining rules will be posted Thursday.

Houses of worship are allowed to open this weekend with 25% capacity. Raimondo said about half the church leaders she has spoken to are planning to reopen immediately.

“You have to do what you think is right,” Raimondo said. “I think it’s safe.”

Raimondo has said she plans to raise the social gathering limit to 15 people in Phase 2. She expects the phase to last through June, and hopes to enter Phase 3 in early July.

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Raimondo announced new assistance from the American Red Cross for families affected by COVID-19, including assistance for planning funerals under the current guidelines.

She said the service is free and confidential, and urged people who have lost loved ones to the virus to connect with the organization.

Raimondo said 15 people will be allowed to gather at a funeral in a funeral home in Phase 2, though services at a church or synagogue would be permitted with 25% capacity.

Raimondo urged people to continue to follow her various rules and directives as the economy reopens in order to stem further spread of the virus.

“I’m worried that people think, ‘oh, we’re going to get our hair cut, we can relax,’ Raimondo said. “It’s actually the opposite. We are going to be able to do that, therefore it is more important than ever that we follow the rules.”

Thursday’s news briefing is at 1 p.m. In addition to discussing new rules for salons and indoor dining, Raimondo said she plans to make announcements Thursday about youth sports and rental assistance.