No fines issued despite hundreds of calls to RI’s large gathering hotline

Coronavirus

SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) — No fines or citations have been issued since Rhode Island launched its new large gathering hotline last Wednesday.

The hotline is manned by Rhode Island State Police, who said they had received 412 calls as of midnight Sunday. Some weren’t to report large gatherings, police said, but were instead about other coronavirus issues, like where to get tested or where to report a business violation.

  • Large gathering hotline: (401) 764-5554
  • COVID-19 info line: (401) 222-8022
  • Report a business violation: (401) 889-5550

“Of those total 412 calls, we responded to a total of 56,” Lt. Col. Kevin Barry said Monday.

He said sometimes troopers found large gatherings that were in compliance, such as catered outdoor events, which are currently capped at 100 in Rhode Island. Other times, there wasn’t anything there.

“We’ve actually responded to locations where it’s an empty parking lot,” he said. “We’ve gotten information that there’s a big, huge gathering at such a place, and we go there and there’s nothing there.”

Barry said since the hotline launched on Aug. 5, they’ve found four gatherings in violation of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s current order. Three were in Providence, including a reception for a funeral and a college party, and the fourth was at a Coventry residence. The crowds ranged from roughly 20 to 40 people and Barry said they all dispersed without incident.

“We received good cooperation for the most part, and again, the goal and the objective here is to get compliance,” he added. “We are also trying to educate them as well because some people aren’t aware of the order.”

The governor’s current order limits social gatherings to 15 people. Raimondo announced the new hotline during her weekly press briefing on Wednesday, asking people to do their “civic duty” and call if they see large groups of people not wearing masks or keeping social distance.

Barry said the phones started ringing almost immediately, with 57 calls to the hotline on Wednesday, 90 on Thursday, 83 on Friday, and 137 on Saturday. The number of calls fell to 45 on Sunday.

Whether those found to be in violation receive a fine is up to the R.I. Department of Health.

“Discretion is being used,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken explained. “We always start with education, to make sure people understand what the policies are and why someone may be out of compliance.”

“Our goal is not to fine people,” he continued. “It’s to get people to act in a way that keeps the rest of the community healthy and safe.”

Some have been critical of the new hotline, saying it forces people to tattle on or rat out their neighbors, potentially pitting people against one another during an already trying time. But Barry argued it’s just another tool towards the ultimate goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“I can understand people’s frustration with the ‘snitch line,'” Barry said, adding, “I just think if people understand that it’s there to try and prevent the spread of COVID, and to reduce that in Rhode Island, so I think we have a responsibility to do it, and I think we’ll continue to do it. Hopefully the data shows that it’s working.”

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