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Nesi’s Notes: March 14

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. Over the past week, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated from the biggest story in the world to almost the only story in the world, reporters have been debating comparable news environments. The analogies show just how all-encompassing the crisis has become: it recalls the height of the financial crisis in September 2008, the week of the Boston Marathon bombing, even the days after the World Trade Center or Pearl Harbor attacks. “It feels like 9/11, but a slow-moving 9/11,” Tim White said Friday on a Newsmakers roundtable. The word that comes up most often is “uncertainty.” How long will the crisis last? How many people will be infected? How much more social disruption will be necessary? How severe will the economic shock be? No one knows. In Rhode Island, the Health Department has been providing daily data updates, giving helpful visibility into the situation locally. As of Friday afternoon Rhode Island had tested 185 people for COVID-19 since Feb. 29: 14 tested positive, 142 tested negative, and 29 were still waiting for results; about 500 people were in self-quarantine. Governor Raimondo’s advisers are cautiously hopeful the state is moving aggressively enough to “flatten the curve,” as the experts say, and avoid overtaxing local hospitals; others worry there hasn’t been enough testing to feel confident about that. And the governor’s decision to order a one-week school closure less than 24 hours after ruling out the idea shows just how fast events are moving. Raimondo’s team says they’ve made no decisions about whether schools will remain closed after next Friday — they want to see whether it has a measurable effect on the disease’s spread and what level of disruption it causes. But parents and teachers should brace for a longer pause: Boston’s public schools announced Friday night they will be closed through April 27.

2. For a sobering take on where this is all going — from someone I trust — read Josh Barro’s new article in New York magazine. “My editors came to me and asked me to write part of the cover package on coronavirus for @nymag’s new issue,” Josh says. “They asked me to scope out how bad this thing is likely to get. I don’t have good news.”

3. Last night I asked one of the state officials working long hours on the coronavirus response what their biggest message is going into next week. I got a simple reply: “If you’re sick stay home!”

4. Legislative leaders have cancelled next week’s sessions and closed their offices at the advice of the Department of Health. House spokesperson Larry Berman told me Friday night, “An intern was feeling ill early this afternoon and left the State House to seek medical treatment. The rest of the employees in that basement office went home as a precaution. We are awaiting further information. I am uncertain if she was tested for COVID-19.”

5. A suggestion – and warning – from former state Rep. David Segal: “The pandemic is going to get worse, not better, over the course of the General Assembly’s break. State leaders and relevant civil society groups need to come up with a plan now (as in, this weekend) to determine how the GA, executive bodies, city councils, and other authorities can operate without meeting in person over coming months. And if necessary they should come back and vote on it ASAP while it’s still possible to get a quorum.”

6. It’s hardly the biggest concern right now — but the one-week closure of Rhode Island’s two casinos illustrates how this crisis could wreak havoc on the state budget.

7. From the great Peggy Noonan: “Nice idea out there to help local shops/restaurants/services suffering from decreased business due to virus. Go in, ask if you can buy a gift certificate for future use. They get the money when they need it, you will use it down the road.”

8. Will you get a refund if your college is closing over COVID-19? It depends.

9. Believe it or not, coronavirus was not the only news story this week. In fact, there were noteworthy developments in both the legal controversies swirling around Speaker Mattiello. On Friday evening, my colleague Eli Sherman reported that former Mattiello aide Jeff Britt has filed the witness list for his upcoming criminal trial — and two of the witnesses he expects to call are the speaker and his chief of staff, Leo Skenyon. In a court filing, Britt’s attorney claims Mattiello lied about his knowledge of the Shawna Lawton mailer at the center of the case — and that Skenyon urged Britt to sign a false affidavit about it. (The speaker’s office had not responded to a request for comment as of Friday night.) Meanwhile, the grand jury investigating Mattiello’s alleged retaliation against Convention Center leaders continued to hear new testimony from witnesses this week. “My only comment is that it’s the speaker that’s under investigation,” Convention Center Authority Chairman Bernie Buonanno said after his appearance. “Not the Convention Center.”

10. Steph Machado reports on an ethics investigation that wrapped up before it began.

11. Tim White and Eli Sherman do a deep dive on Providence’s speed camera program.

12. I’m joined on this week’s Executive Suite by two young entrepreneurs — Rebelle Artisan Bagels founder Milena Pagan and Be Moore Interpreting founder Shirley Moore — who share their stories of starting and growing a small business. Moore is deeply committed to the revitalization of downtown Pawtucket, where she also owns the co-working space The Rail, and she’s enthusiastic about the city’s future with the coming arrival of the new commuter rail station and $400 million Tidewater Landing project. “In our camp we call it gentrification, right?” Moore said. “So the process is gentrifying our city. And I think there’s obvious opportunity for us to say to black and brown folks, hey, let’s capitalize on this gentrification. Let’s not allow it to drive us out of our community. Let’s not allow it to take our community from us.” So how do you accomplish that? “We start talking about it now,” she said. “If you create the opportunity — people can jump on and off the train right there — they can begin to develop these businesses. And as things rise here, we rise with it, rather than it rises, and now we have to go because we can’t afford it.”

13. Mark your calendars: Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy will debate June 8 on WPRI 12.

14. Looking for a long read this weekend? Try Evan Osnos’s recent deep dive on the future of Washington’s battle with Beijing to dominate the 21st century.

15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a reporters’ roundtable on coronavirus. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Rebelle Artisan Bagels founder Milena Pagan; Be Moore Interpreting founder Shirley Moore. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both 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

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