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Nesi’s Notes: April 4

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. Rhode Island seems to be in a glass half-full, half-empty stage of the coronavirus pandemic right now. Governor Raimondo has taken an aggressive approach to combating the virus, and there are signs her strategy has paid dividends. While Rhode Island’s COVID-19 case count now tops 700 — more than triple last Saturday’s number — that is in part the product of a ramp-up in testing. A key metric to watch is hospitalizations, and as of Friday evening there were 76 patients in the hospital — not a small number, but still low enough that the hospitals aren’t swamped. That has bought precious time for the state to procure equipment, identify temporary hospital sites and prepare the public for what’s to come. There’s a gloomier way to read the situation, though. Slowing the spread has come at a terrible economic price, with tens of thousands of people thrown out of work and an untold number of small businesses in existential peril. A model that assumes all residents adhere to social distancing suggests roughly 260 Rhode Islanders will die from COVID-19 — and the governor herself says only about half the population is following the health directives. Raimondo wants to eventually emulate the model of South Korea, where mass testing and robust tracing has allowed normal life to continue more than elsewhere. And after a slow start compared with its New England neighbors, Rhode Island is now able to test up to 1,000 people a day. “I want everyone to know we’re open for business for testing,” Raimondo said Friday. “So please, let’s go ahead and get us those referrals so we can go ahead and get more accurate data around who’s getting sick, how many people are sick, and getting those folks into isolation as quickly as possible.”

2. The Health Department notified reporters Friday night that Governor Raimondo will hold coronavirus briefings on both Saturday and Sunday again this weekend — that will mark the 28th and 29th straight days she has held a briefing.

3. You know the news cycle is busy when Governor Cuomo threatening to sue Governor Raimondo is quickly forgotten in the rush of events. Their spat did catch the attention of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, though, who wrote: “When every other Democrat in America was swooning over Andrew Cuomo, Gina Raimondo was sparring with him. I can’t say I’m surprised.”

4. I’m running out of ways to adequately describe the current carnage in the Rhode Island labor market. Over 91,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits since March 9, nearly all citing COVID-19, and an additional 13,000 have applied for temporary disability or caregiver benefits. By my math, that means the Rhode Island unemployment rate has soared to roughly 20%. For perspective, during the last recession it peaked at about 11%, and the number of unemployed Rhode Islanders topped out at 64,000 — we are talking Great Depression territory here. And while the $2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed last week should help many of those out of work, the U.S. Labor Department has yet to provide enough guidance for the R.I. Department of Labor and Training to start expanding benefits — to the frustration of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, among others. It’s clear people are hungry for the CARES Act programs to get up and running: DLT spokesperson Angelika Pellegrino tells me more than 14,000 people have signed up for the agency’s updates mailing list so far. Tim White and I are receiving an avalanche of emails every day from people seeking help navigating the system, and we’ve been doing our best to offer answers — you can find our explainer videos and links to other WPRI.com resources right here.

5. With restaurants shuttered, travel all but stopped and hotels mostly empty, Rhode Island’s hospitality industry has felt the effects of the coronavirus recession faster than any other sector. Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Kristen Adamo reports $10 million in direct spending has been lost from cancelled meetings, conventions and sporting events, with another $11.5 million in business postponed. And a new worry emerged Friday with news the Rhode Island Convention Center will be outfitted as a temporary hospital. Adamo is quick to say the industry supports the decision, but noted, “the longer that building is offline, the more business we will have to cancel or postpone. That means very low hotel occupancy and hotel tax revenue, even if the hotels reopen. Many municipalities and agencies like mine will feel the effects of that. Again, I am not saying it will happen or that it shouldn’t happen. I’m saying that, if it does, the economic fallout will need to be addressed.”

6. Coronavirus is a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and for government, a fiscal crisis, too. The CARES Act will send Rhode Island a much-ballyhooed $1.25 billion to help deal directly with COVID-19, but that in and of itself won’t solve the challenges. “While the state has and will continue to accrue significant expenses related to the response, the larger budget problem is due to the devastating reduction in state revenues,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Finance Committe Chairman Billy Conley told senators in an email this week. “CARES funding cannot be used to replace lost revenues, at least at this time.” Rhode Island leaders, like their counterparts in other states such as New York, are pressing Congress to pony up more money to fill the holes in their budgets for general expenses, though it remains to be seen if Senate Republicans will be amenable to that. In the meantime, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s office has quickly used its new authorization for up to $300 million in short-term borrowing, drawing $25 million in cash off a new low-interest line of credit from Bank of America.

7. House and Senate Republicans are pressing Rhode Island’s Democratic legislative leaders to come up with concrete plans to reconvene the General Assembly if the pandemic continues. So far, though, Senate President Ruggerio and Speaker Mattiello don’t seem to be in a hurry — hoping the health crisis subsides enough that lawmakers can safely return in person later this spring. An option being contemplated in the Senate if the situation remains dangerous: have a presiding officer on the rostrum, with senators coming in to give floor remarks and vote individually.

8. State-level elected leaders aren’t the only ones sweating the longer-term implications of the pandemic. “Cities and towns are on the front lines of this response effort – providing emergency services through the tireless work of first responders, enforcing statewide orders on social distancing and business operations and adapting vital government operations to challenging conditions,” R.I. League of Cities and Towns chief Brian Daniels told me Friday evening. At the moment their main concern is ensuring the state continues distributing local aid as scheduled, but looking ahead to their 2020-21 fiscal years, “municipalities are very concerned about the state budget outlook.” Like state leaders, city and town officials are hoping Congress comes through with more direct assistance to shore up their budgets. “Many communities are already looking to delay their own budget timelines for both local logistical reasons and because of the uncertainty surrounding state aid levels, local revenue projections and the timeline for the General Assembly to return,” Daniels said. “We cannot have a repeat of the last recession, when the state made drastic budget cuts to cities and towns, forcing service cuts and property tax increases.”

9. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and her team are having to rapidly rejigger Rhode Island’s presidential primary after it was moved to a mostly-mail-ballot affair in June. The delayed primary is also going to serve as a test drive if the September state primary and November general election have to happen under unusual circumstances, too. “I’m certainly not taking anything for granted,” Gorbea told Tim White on this week’s Newsmakers. “We’re going to really examine this presidential preference primary, we’re going to learn from it, and there’ll be things that if we are still in the same situation, we’ll be able to carry forward into September and November.” However, she is not keen on the idea of moving the November election. “I know I’m going to encourage our congressional delegation, to the extent possible, that we keep the November date, because it is really, really important that we carry on our democracy,” Gorbea said. “But we do want to make sure that everyone’s safe and secure and healthy, and it’s really hard to predict the future these days.”

10. One organization on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis is the United Way of Rhode Island, which has been hearing directly from hard-hit Rhode Islanders through its 2-1-1 telephone service. “2-1-1 call specialists at United Way are handling 500 to 600 calls (and growing) a day from many affected by COVID-19, and it is clear that our Rhode Island neighbors are struggling,” reports United Way CEO Cortney Nicolato. “While many are calling looking for information on unemployment and how to file unemployment claims, many are also looking for rental assistance, mortgage and utility assistance as a result of being out of work. The top concern is food, and more specifically meal delivery. Senior citizens can get meal delivery through senior centers and Meals on Wheels, but for low-income families who depend on SNAP/EBT benefits, they cannot access delivery services. Access to resources we once took for granted is hard on everyone, but right now it is all the more challenging for families who are struggling financially.”

11. The United Way is just one of the many organizations responding to the crisis. … The Rhode Island Foundation’s Chris Barnett reports a new COVID-19 Behavioral Health Fund has been seeded with over $5 million from health insurers following a state compliance review. (WPRI.com has compiled a list of hotlines and other support resources here.) … Commerce RI, Upserve and Hope & Main are hosting a webinar Tuesday for restaurants to learn about doing business online. … A group of Rhode Island artists and designers have raised $21,000 to acquire PPE for health workers. … The Rhode Island AFL-CIO is hosting a conference call Tuesday at 7 p.m. for families to learn about available resources. … PR pro Dante Bellini has put together this Rhode Island Heroes video to bolster community spirit.

12. The documentary about indicted former Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia is coming out this month — here’s the trailer on YouTube.

13. Phil Eil on how the coronavirus pandemic can humanize anxiety.

14. Will Ormeus breaks down what’s really going on with the toilet paper shortage.

15. Zeynep Tufecki explains what she thinks really doomed America’s coronavirus response.

16. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. 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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