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Nesi’s Notes: April 11

Ted Nesi
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Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. One of the challenging things about the coronavirus pandemic is that you’re supposed to judge the success of state leaders’ strategy based on what doesn’t happen. If social distancing and shutdowns are having their desired effect, cases of COVID-19 will still be increasing, people will still be dying, hospitals will still see a rising number of patients — the numbers will just be going up more slowly than otherwise. At the same time, the side effects of those policies are clearly visible: 130,000 unemployment claims have been filed in Rhode Island in the last month, and an untold number of businesses are in dire straits. During Friday’s briefing, Governor Raimondo said she now sees signs the sacrifices are paying off. “You don’t see Rhode Island flying up the curve and having our hospitals overfilled,” she said. “That’s because you guys are doing a great job.” But, she added, “Now is not the time to ease up. When we can ease up safely, I’ll be the first to tell you we can.” During a follow-up conference call with reporters, Raimondo gave a window into just how long the wait could be in response to a question about when weddings will again take place normally. “If you could have a 50-, 70-, 80-person wedding, then maybe sometime later this year,” she replied — before abruptly adding, “Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott is saying, no way.” It’s only April; if Rhode Island’s top health official doubts 50-person gatherings will be allowable months from now, the public’s patience is going to be tested much more than it has been so far.

2. For an eye-opening look at the proposals from right and left to reopen the economy, don’t miss this bracing piece by Vox’s Ezra Klein. It helps explain why the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis is now suggesting the economy may be in for a “square-root recovery.” Additional recommended reading: Edward Luce’s FT interview with Ron Klain, the former “Ebola czar.”

3. As of today’s 1 p.m. news conference, Governor Raimondo will have done a daily coronavirus briefing every day for an entire month. She’ll break the streak on Sunday — sort of — by taking the day off for Easter Sunday and instead airing a taped message. “I know members of the press could use a day off, as could many folks who work for me on my team,” she explained Friday. (Correct.) So far, the governor’s handling of coronavirus seems to be winning over many Rhode Islanders — a Microsoft News poll out this week showed 76% approval for her approach.

4. Eli Sherman continues to do yeoman’s work keeping our COVID-19 tracking page up to date.

5. The Globe’s Ed Fitzpatrick files a story I’d been waiting for someone to do: a profile of Health Department Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.

6. What’s going on inside the hospitals? Care New England CEO Jim Fanale says in addition to monitoring the virus, “we’re also planning. Most of the play now is on making sure we’re ready for the different levels of surge. What happens when we get growth in patient volume that we’re full? How do we prepare to accommodate 120% of capacity? How do we prepare to accommodate 150% of capacity? So most of the work today is done on being prepared for when the volume starts increasing.” (Coronavirus is simultaneously a financial worry for hospital systems: Fitch Ratings put Care New England on a watch list for a potential downgrade Thursday.)

7. Rhode Island often looks enviously at its northern neighbor, but on the rollout of CARES Act unemployment benefits, the Ocean State has the edge. The R.I. Department of Labor and Training launched its applications for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program on Tuesday, and nearly 17,000 people filed a claim in the first three days. By contrast, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance is still saying it is working to make a PUA application available “as quickly as possible.” (And if you’re looking for more information on filing for unemployment in Rhode Island, check out all the videos and links in this 12 Responds feature.)

8. With Rhode Island’s COVID-19 expenses already nearing $100 million, the $1.25 billion to cover such costs that Senator Reed secured in the CARES Act will be welcome. Reed said he spoke Friday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who indicated a significant chunk of the money will be transferred to the state next week. Even before the $1.25 billion starts flowing, an enormous amount of cash has already been steered Rhode Island’s way from Washington: by my math, over $500 million from the three coronavirus spending bills has been announced so far. That includes $150 million in extra Medicaid funding, $115 million for education, $104 million for RIPTA, and $90.5 million for hospitals. If Reed has his way, the CARES Act won’t be the end of it — he wants a potential CARES Act 2 to include at least another $500 million to help bail out the state budget as well as a provision providing up to $25,000 in hazard pay for front-line workers from nurses to grocery store clerks. “The fiscal outlook for states, cities, and municipalities around the country is dire,” he said Friday. “That is why I am already working to provide a second wave of funding.”

9. So much for Jim Inhofe and Jack Reed’s idea of holding “paper hearings.”

10. Treasurer Magaziner was quick to sound the alarm last month when he feared the state would run out of cash without authorizing short-term borrowing, as legislative leaders quickly did. But despite the turmoil in the markets, he’s far more sanguine about the health of the state’s $8.5 billion pension fund. “We’re holding up better than probably people would expect,” Magaziner told Tim White on this week’s Newsmakers, saying he expects the percentage decline for March to be in single-digits. The treasurer gives some of the credit to the “crisis protection” allocation he added to the portfolio after taking office, which he says was up 15% in March even as the S&P was down 20%. “My message to the public employees who are watching, who are wondering about the pension system, is: don’t worry,” Magaziner said. “The pension system is going to be fine. We are not in any way going to take money out of the pension fund to plug budget holes, we’re not going to skip contributions into the fund as was done back in the ’90s — for me that is off the table. It is something that I will not support, and this is not going to lead to further pension reforms in any way, shape or form.”

11. Will Geoghegan, sports editor at The Independent, wrote about the surreal experience of getting tested for COVID-19 in the Ryan Center parking lot. And if you need some reading material to get you through quarantine, check out Will’s new book “Summer Baseball Nation,” a look at collegiate leagues like the Cape Cod Baseball League.

12. Coronavirus or no coronavirus, the race to replace Joe Kennedy in Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District rolls on. It was a big week for Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss: not only did he and his wife welcome their first child, but our survey found he now leads the field financially and as of Wednesday was the only candidate with enough signatures to make the ballot. (The others may get a reprieve: state Senate leaders announced Friday night they’ll advance a bill to reduce the number of signatures required due to social distancing.) Auchincloss campaign manager Megan Hondl argues being organized is part of the reason for their success so far, citing the over 1,000 signatures their volunteers collected on Super Tuesday alone. There’s still a long way to go, though, and Auchincloss faces multiple well-funded and well-connected rivals — not to mention huge uncertainty about how the public health crisis will affect campaigning down the stretch.

13. Thank you, Luis, from our spartan WPRI 12 State House crew.

14. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersTreasurer Magaziner. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both our weekend shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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