Key takeaways from today’s RI COVID-19 briefing:
- Deaths on the rise, but new cases declining
- Hospitalizations steady; ventilator use up
- Stay-at-home order decision coming Thursday
- Retailers, restaurants get how-to-reopen details
- Employee testing coming to four Stop & Shops
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Health Department announced Monday that 21 more Rhode Islanders have died after contracting COVID-19, but also said the number of new positive cases confirmed in the last 24 hours was the smallest in nearly a month.
The fresh data came on the same day Gov. Gina Raimondo began preparing Rhode Islanders for a likely first step toward reopening the state’s economy next weekend.
The additional fatalities — with an age range from their 40s to their 90s — bring Rhode Island’s coronavirus death toll to 341 since March 28. The 45 deaths reported on Sunday and Monday combined is the largest tally in any two-day span since the crisis began. A majority of the dead lived in congregate care facilities such as nursing homes.
“Remember the toll that this crisis is taking,” Raimondo said at her daily news briefing Monday.
There were 339 Rhode Islanders hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday, up slightly from Sunday but still below Friday’s record high of 352. The number of COVID-19 patients on a ventilator as of Monday totaled 61, the largest number seen so far, out of 84 total patients in the ICU.
There were just 175 new coronavirus cases reported in Rhode Island on Monday, the fewest for any single day since April 7. The total number of tests completed was also down considerably over the weekend, possibly due to the nice weather.
Since peaking on April 26, the seven-day average for new coronavirus cases — a key metric watched by doctors — has dropped 29% in Rhode Island, from 391 a day to 278. And the positivity rate — the share of each day’s tests that come back positive, another crucial indicator — fell to 8% on Monday, the third straight day of decline.
“I think these numbers are a good story,” Raimondo said.
“It shows the virus isn’t running away with itself,” she said. “We’re on top of it. It’s stable. We’ve made good choices and we’ve done as well of a job as we could.” She praised all Rhode Islanders for playing a part in helping the community get through the crisis, and said state officials had generally noted strong compliance with social distancing despite the beautiful weekend weather.
A new executive order on face coverings is slated to be announced on Tuesday. “At this point we should always all have a mask on us,” Raimondo said.
R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the state is expanding testing to places where workers have face-to-face contact with the public, including a new voluntary program offering diagnostic and antibody testing to employees at four Stop & Shop stores starting Tuesday.
The R.I. Department of Business Regulation made unannounced visits to more than 300 businesses over the weekend and reported a 95% compliance rate of customers wearing masks as well as nearly universal compliance with people remaining six feet apart, according to the governor.
“It is my hope and intention to lift the stay-at-home order when it expires May 8,” Raimondo said at the briefing. In a follow-up conference call, the governor said she will make a formal announcement Thursday about whether she will in fact by lifting the order.
If it happens, that would make Saturday the first day of what Raimondo’s administration has described as “phase one” of a three-phase approach to reopening. Phase one could last roughly two weeks, she suggested.
For phase one, “I want you to think slow and steady, patience, and flexibility,” Raimondo said.
Under phase one, non-critical retailers will be allowed to open their doors to shoppers but with capacity restrictions based on size, Raimondo said, indicating the rules will be similar to what is currently happening at supermarkets but stricter.
“We’re going to still encourage pre-ordering and in-store pickup as the best and safest option,” she said. “However, we are going to enable stores to have limited in-person browsing.”
The R.I. Commerce Corp. shared this graphic displaying how retailers will be allowed to open under phase one, as part of a new slide deck laying out how it will work:
Restaurants will face more significant restrictions during phase one, with dine-in service still banned, Raimondo said, but establishments will be encouraged to expand takeout options and could be allowed to do outdoor dining later in phase one. Reservations would be required and there would be no shared menus or condiments for outdoor dining.
“This one looms heavily on me to try and figure out a way to get you back in business,” the governor said, acknowledging most restaurants won’t really be opening in phase one. She also said her administration has abandoned its initial plan to do a “pilot” program allowing only some select restaurants to open, a decision she said was based on industry feedback.
Commerce Corp. shared this graphic displaying how restaurants might be able to operate at some point during phase one:
Allowing more non-critical health care is also on the menu for phase one. The governor urged those who have delayed physician visits and procedures due to coronavirus to call and make an appointment. More announcements are coming on when individual hospitals will resume elective surgeries.
Visits to nursing homes and hospitals will continue to be prohibited during phase one, which Raimondo acknowledged is a particularly difficult directive to have in place with Mother’s Day around the corner.
Close-contact businesses such as salons and barbershops could be allowed to reopen once the state moves to phase two, potentially later in May, the governor said. Restaurants would also be given expanded authorization to operate.
People who have been able to work from home should continue to work from home during phase one, Raimondo said. Those who do need to go back to their offices to work “can start to come back,” she said, and people who need to stop by the office should make limited visits if necessary.
“What’s not fine is returning to normal right away,” she said.
Public health directives including social distancing and frequent hand-washing remain a necessity, and employers will be asked to stagger shifts, close shared spaces and screen employees daily to check their health.
Businesses that need assistance are encouraged to call the Commerce Corp. at the telephone number 521-HELP.
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