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Nesi’s Notes: July 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.

Programming note: Nesi’s Notes will be going on summer hiatus for a few weeks after today’s edition — see you back here on Aug. 8!

1. Seeing coronavirus cases explode in other parts of the country, it’s hard not to worry about whether Southern New England will wind up in the same spot. Right now, though, the trends look good. Don’t take my word for it — listen to Harvard’s Dr. Ashish Jha, incoming dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, who has emerged as one of the nation’s most frequently quoted experts on the pandemic. “Rhode Island has done a fabulous job — I would say one of the kind of standouts in the country, a model for how we should be doing this,” Jha said on this week’s taping of Newsmakers. “If the rest of the country had done what Rhode Island has done, we’d have been in a very different place as a nation.” Jha argues the most important mission for New Englanders this summer is to keep infections at their current low levels in order that schools can safely reopen as planned. “I really have come to believe that if we open our bars and restaurants fully this summer, we’re going to be closing our schools in the fall,” he said. “That’s the tradeoff, and we’ve got to be careful about that.” Even without a rise in cases, though, Rhode Island is still feeling the effects of the national surge: a growing number of people are complaining about long delays to get results back after taking a COVID-19 test. If the turnaround time for tests doesn’t improve, it could pose a serious challenge this fall.

2.  The bigger question: when will life truly feel like it’s back to normal? As a hypothetical, I asked Ashish Jha when he thinks we’ll be able to go out to eat indoors without masks and without worrying about the A/C circulating virus. “I think you and your wife can go out and have dinner indoors and largely not worry probably next summer,” Jha said on Newsmakers. “Before then it may be possible in certain parts — it will depend a little bit on what’s happening with the vaccine. But here’s how I think about why next summer’s a pretty safe bet. I think we’re going to have a vaccine identified, maybe more than one — probably more than one — by the end of this year or early next year. But there’s also the fact that we’re going to be trying to ramp up hundreds of million of doses of these things. My suspicion is that in the first quarter — January, February, March — we’ll still be ramping up production, people will start getting vaccinated. The vaccine won’t be a magic bullet; it won’t be like you get a vaccine once and you’re done forever. But it will probably be pretty effective. And a large chunk of the population will have gotten the vaccine sometime — April, May, June of next year. And so it might be earlier than next summer — not much earlier than next summer. And I doubt it will be much later. I think we’re making so much progress that I am optimistic next summer will be very different than this one.”

3. The response to COVID-19 is driven by the data on COVID-19, so it’s vital that statistics about the pandemic are both accurate and contextualized. That’s part of why we’re lucky to have my Target 12 colleague Eli Sherman, who has spent months curating and updating our extensive COVID-19 data tracking page. That expertise came in handy twice this week when influential sources of information gave the public an inaccurate perspective on what the data shows. The first of those sources was Governor Raimondo herself, who has repeatedly suggested Rhode Island has tested 20% to 25% of its population, conflating the number of tests with the number of people tested. (Raimondo and her staff are now being more careful, though not in time to keep the error out of her glowing Politico Magazine interview.) The second was The New York Times, which on Friday cited data from the influential COVID-19 Tracking Project to suggest Rhode Island has suddenly become a national laggard in testing. That came as a surprise after the state has been the national leader in testing for months — and sure enough, there was more to the story. It turns out the more data you provide the COVID-19 Tracking Project, the harsher it judges you — and because Rhode Island is now being transparent about the number of tests versus the number of people tested, it is getting judged on the latter metric, unlike other states that provide more limited information. So not only was the Times article apparently pushing an apples-to-oranges comparison between states, it was also incentivizing them to offer less data to improve their national rankings. (Kudos to R.I. Department of Health staffers, by the way, for making their data more comprehensive this week.)

4. In the end, coronavirus isn’t about dry statistics — it’s about people. My friend Brian Amaral captured that fact beautifully, and painfully, in this Providence Journal piece on Friday.

5. Rhode Island leaders are facing a big budget deficit for the new 2020-21 fiscal year. But Mike DiBiase, CEO of RIPEC and until recently Department of Administration director, argues it’s not quite as enormous as has been suggested. “It’s government budgeting, so it’s $800 million over budgets that have grown over two years,” DiBiase said on this week’s Newsmakers. “So it’s about $300 million from the 2019 budget to the 2021 budget, which is smaller. It’s a 7.5% decrease, which is still very large, because costs go up every year, but it’s not of the magnitude that we saw in the Great Recession. … I don’t want to minimize it, but we saw a 12% drop in one year in the Great Recession on a nominal basis. So it was much more severe than this.” DiBiase is counseling state leaders to avoid new spending commitments, even if Congress sends a one-time infusion of cash to help with this year’s deficit. But he’s also encouraging them to consider borrowing for long-term investments in light of how low interest rates are. “RIPEC is usually a fiscally conservative voice, but I think this is a time to expand our borrowing, because it’s one of the few tools we have to counteract what’s going to be a reduction in spending,” he said. “It should be for assets, capital investments, not just for operating. And it should also be on things that should have some other value for growing the economy.”

6. It’s been more than two months since the U.S. Treasury Department deposited $1.25 billion in Rhode Island’s state bank account for its share of the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund, and a growing number of small businesses are frustrated that Governor Raimondo hasn’t sent any of the cash their way. They’ve found a champion in Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, who has lately been kept at arm’s length by Raimondo throughout the crisis and has been challenging her more directly on the issue. But it’s not just McKee: Senate Democrats, notably Lou DiPalma and Ryan Pearson, grilled Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor at a Finance Committee hearing earlier this week about why no money had gone out the door so far. Raimondo’s team has been loathe to allocate too much of the $1.25 billion, largely because they continue to hope Congress will give them more flexibility in the next federal recovery bill to allocate the money for the budget gap. But the political pressure seems to be too strong for the governor to resist any longer: Pryor’s agency has scheduled a meeting Monday at 6:30 p.m. to discuss a grant program for small businesses, and Raimondo signaled today she will announce it next week. “The challenges facing our small businesses are massive, and what we’re able to roll out in a week or so is meant to provide immediate relief, but it’s not going to solve our entire economic crisis for the long term,” Raimondo warned at Friday’s coronavirus briefing.

7. A loyal Nesi’s Notes reader reports getting a call from a pollster Friday who was conducting a survey of Rhode Island voters, and it sure sounds like Senator Reed’s campaign may have been doing the asking. There were multiple questions about Reed’s policy stances, as well as his military background and his family, plus favorability questions regarding Reed, Sheldon WhitehousePresident Trump, Black Lives Matter, China and the police. Other topics included the $600 unemployment boost, mandatory mask-wearing, and the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic.

8. Rhode Island’s Sept. 8 primary looks like it will be an even sleepier affair than expected, now that legislative leaders have headed off any effort to send every voter a mail ballot application, as happened in the presidential primary. That will come as a relief to General Assembly incumbents who were wary of an unpredictable surge of voter participation. Still, that’s not to suggest there are no storylines surrounding the primary. Example: the fierce criticism Planned Parenthood faced this week from others on the left for refusing to endorse Jennifer Rourke in her primary challenge against Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey.

9. After many months when you couldn’t give away a ticket to Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District primary, things are finally starting to heat up. Nine Democrats are seeking the nomination to succeed Joe Kennedy, and a majority of them have the money and connections to be credible. With less than two months left before the Sept. 1 primary, and Massachusetts now officially committed to a mail-ballot primary, things are getting serious. Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss is the best-funded candidate, and this week he became the first to announce a TV ad (cable-only so far). The next hopeful to debut a spot would have been a surprise not long ago: Ihssane Leckey, a progressive aligned with Bernie Sanders, who stunned the rest of the field last week by dropping roughly $650,000 of her own money into the race. (Access to that kind of cash has focused new attention on her failure to file a required personal financial disclosure statement with the U.S. House clerk.) By Friday, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei had announced the race’s third TV ad, unveiling a 60-second spot. Television isn’t everything, though, and if any candidate has the chance to prove that it’s Jesse Mermell, a more establishment-friendly progressive than Leckey. Mermell has been running in the middle of the pack on fundraising but has been punching above her weight in endorsements, this week adding the Massachusetts Teachers Association to her supporters. Another candidate to watch is Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman, who’s expected to pump some of her own savings into her campaign next week. As for the other four candidates — Dave Cavell, Natalia Linos, Ben Sigel and Chris Zannetos — the hour is growing late to establish themselves as real contenders for the Democratic nomination.

10. One reason contested primaries matter: they get powerful elected officials to take notice of local priorities. A good example came Friday, when Joe Kennedy trekked to New Bedford and threw his support behind moving NOAA Fisheries from Woods Hole to the Whaling City, something local leaders have sought for years. (Ed Markey suggested in our debate last month that he thinks New Bedford and Woods Hole should share the NOAA office.)

11. The Warwick Beacon’s John Howell offers some insight here into the closed-door talks between Lifespan and Care New England. And speaking of health care, Blue Cross and its partners have kicked off their 2020 Rhode Island Life Index survey — so if you get a call, it’s not spam.

12. Aaron Gell on the rise and fall of Rhode Island’s Alex and Ani.

13. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Dr. Ashish Jha, incoming dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health; Michael DiBiase, president and CEO of RIPEC. 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.

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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