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Nesi’s Notes: March 28

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. The rush of daily updates about coronavirus can make it hard to see the forest for the trees. So let’s start with the good news: Rhode Island’s hospitals are not yet overrun with COVID-19 patients. Of the 203 Rhode Islanders who have tested positive for the disease since March 1, just 28 were hospitalized as of Friday evening. “Right now, as I sit here today, we’re in pretty good shape,” Lifespan CEO Dr. Tim Babineau told Tim White when they spoke Wednesday. “The numbers that are coming into our ER and inpatient are really rising very, very slowly. The hospitals are actually fairly empty.” Is that because of Governor Raimondo’s aggressive containment measures? Good luck? Some combination of the two? I leave that judgment to the medical experts — but by all accounts every day a state delays having a spike in cases is valuable, because it gives hospitals and officials more time to prepare. “If we were to have an outbreak right now similar to what you’re seeing in New Orleans or New York City or elsewhere, we are not ready for that,” Raimondo said Friday. “We are not set up for that.” But how long will the public accept this level of disruption, not to mention the severe economic damage it’s causing? And what will happen when some of the restrictions are eventually lifted? Those questions may seem a long way off, but they’re already on the minds of the Rhode Islanders battling to hold back the pandemic.

2. Does Governor Raimondo have the legal right to mandate strict quarantines for New Yorkers who come to Rhode Island, as she ordered this week? On the Harvard Law Review blog, Anthony Michael Kreis examines the jurisprudence: “Some of these actions will inevitably raise honest concerns about civil liberties, and Americans should endeavor to debate the wisdom of government policy even amid a crisis to hold government actors accountable and protect constitutional values. However, the simple reality is this: federal courts will not enjoin temporary measures that are facially calculated to save lives.”

3. Over 70,000 Rhode Islanders have filed for out-of-work benefits since March 9 — the entire labor force is only about 550,000. No other state in the country saw as large a share of its workers file for unemployment benefits as Rhode Island did last week. Depending on when the official Labor Department survey is done, the unemployment rate could top 15% next month. This is a calamity, and limiting the damage is going to pose a huge challenge.

4. Meeting as the Disaster Emergency Financing Board, General Assembly leaders on Thursday authorized up to $300 million in short-term borrowing to manage the state’s cash flow now that income tax payments aren’t due until July. One question that came up: why can’t the state first tap its roughly $200 million rainy day fund? After the hearing, Treasurer Magaziner told reporters something I didn’t know: there is no rainy day fund. He said the State Budget Reserve and Cash Stabilization Account — its official name — is actually just a required amount that has to be in the General Fund at the end of the fiscal year when all the accounts are balanced. So it’s not like a personal savings account where the money is sitting there available to be tapped anytime. Even if it was a separate account, though, it wouldn’t be a huge amount: Rhode Island ranks 40th out of the 50 states for how much money it keeps in its rainy day fund as a share of expenditures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Massachusetts ranks 21st, and Connecticut ranks 14th.

5. Some COVID-19 coverage from my colleagues you might have missed … Tim White reports Memorial Hospital has been looked at as a triage siteEli Sherman reports passengers on chartered flights to Rhode Island aren’t being trackedWalt Buteau learns nurses at Women & Infants are nervous about New York mothers delivering thereCaroline Goggin reports local gun sales are surgingSteph Machado reports an appeals court sided with Providence and Central Falls in the “sanctuary cities” litigationKim Kalunian shares how a 92-year-old Pawtucket man’s was celebrated with a social-distancing-appropriate parade.

6. The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act is now law. Just how much money is $2.2 trillion? Well, if the entire appropriation was split among the states according to population, Rhode Island alone would be in line to receive $7 billion. That’s not how it works in practice, but it gives you a sense of what an enormous amount of money we’re talking about here. On its own, however, it won’t fix Rhode Island’s budget problems: the $1.25 billion cash payment that Senator Reed helped get earmarked for small states can only be applied to COVID-19 expenses, not to fund expenditures that were budgeted for before the bottom fell out of the economy. While Governor Raimondo’s aides are quick to say they’re glad to have the $1.25 billion, her New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo has been vocal in arguing Congress will need to do more to bail out state budgets.

7. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin were both in Washington on Friday to vote on the CARES Act — so will they have to self-quarantine if they come home? Their offices say no — Langevin is driving back, and Cicilline is taking the train. (Joe Kennedy and Bill Keating had to rush to D.C., too, as The Globe’s Victoria McGrane reports.)

8. Wondering whether you’ll get one of the CARES Act relief checks? Read my FAQs.

9. After 30 years on Capitol Hill, Jack Reed has tackled a lot of national crises up close — the first Iraq war, 9/11, the second Iraq war, the financial crisis. So how is this one different? “It’s quite different now because of the physical separation,” Reed told me Wednesday. “We have to do telephone conferences now rather than meet. … The fact that we can’t get together as we normally do and sit across the table — that has made a difference.”

10. Tim White’s guests on the first half of Newsmakers are Lifespan CEO Dr. Tim Babineau and Care New England CEO Dr. James Fanale. It’s clearly an effort to build Rhode Islanders’ confidence in how their largest hospitals are handling coronavirus — but is it also a sign of détente between the feuding rivals? “I wouldn’t read too much into it, other than Dr. Fanale and I and all the hospitals are deeply committed to doing what’s right,” Babineau told Tim. “What’s past is past — I’ve talked to him almost every single day since this crisis hit. We have exactly the same priorities, exactly the same goals. The past is the past. Who knows? Maybe there will be a silver lining in all of this.” Asked the same question, Fanale said, “I think you should read into it that despite competition and differences or whatever they are in the past, we can work together as the two largest health systems in the state and really do whatever is best for the state of Rhode Island, and that is what we’re doing.”

11. Meanwhile, Rhode Island philanthropy has been stepping up to help address the various crises caused by the pandemic. The Rhode Island Foundation and United Way of Rhode Island have raised more than $5.2 million for their COVID-19 Response Fund since March, and already awarded $1.2 million to organizations including Meals on Wheels, the Rhode Island Hospitality Education Foundation and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Separately, the Champlin Foundation announced over $1.6 million in grants responding to the outbreak, including $600,000 to help the state’s hospitals increase COVID-19 testing and $1 million to help organizations that are responding to the pandemic or have lost significant revenue because of it. (Fun fact: The Champlin Foundation — named for a family of Rhode Island industrialists — says its first grant was $50 to Rhode Island Hospital in 1933 to buy eyeglasses for the needy.)

12. Think Rhode Island’s libraries are out of service with their buildings closed due to COVID-19? Think again. Ocean State Libraries reports its eZone ebooks and audiobooks borrowing service saw a 255% increase in new users and a 23% increase in circulation over the last week compared with a year earlier. The number of library card sign-ups has more than doubled, too. “This event underscores the essential roles that libraries play in the fabric of American society,” says Stephen Spohn, Ocean State Libraries’ executive director.

13. The downturn caused by coronavirus is proving to be a huge problem for America’s beleaguered newspaper industry. Locally, Providence Business News has temporarily gone digital-only, the Warwick Beacon has cut staff as well as one of its two weekly editions, and The Sun Chronicle has laid off employees including longtime political reporter Jim Hand.

14. New York Times reporter (and Rhody resident!) C.J. Chivers on how a local seafood shop became a lifeline for Rhode Island’s quahoggers.

15. ABC News producer (and Rhody native!) Luke Barr profiles FEMA chief Peter Gaynor.

16. Rhode Island’s Helena Foulkes tells Fortune what she learned as CEO of Saks’ parent company.

17. Rhode Island’s political scene lost two legendary women in the last week. Former First Lady Virginia Coates Chafee, widow of John Chafee and mother of Lincoln Chafee, died on Saturday at age 93. Sheldon Whitehouse — whose father was John Chafee’s Yale roommate, and who himself defeated Lincoln Chafee in 2006 — remembered Virginia Chafee as “a wise confidant to her late husband, a devoted mother and grandmother, and an environmentalist well ahead of her time.” A day later, longtime Democratic National Committeewoman Edna O’Neill Mattson died at age 84. “Edna was the ‘Grand Dame’ of the Rhode Island Democratic Party,” said Jack Reed. “She lived to serve others and was the gregarious life of the party – an enthusiastic supporter of countless candidates and a pioneer for women in politics.”

18. Bob Dylan just released a new 17-minute song about the JFK assassination.

19. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Lifespan CEO Dr. Tim Babineau and Care New England CEO Dr. James Fanale. 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

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