Nesi’s Notes: May 9

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. Someday when we look back on the coronavirus crisis, I suspect we’ll remember this weekend as a pivot point for Rhode Island. Today marks the start of Phase 1 of Governor Raimondo’s gradual reopening plan, with the 42-day stay-at-home order now over and retailers allowed to reopen their stores to a limited number of browsing customers. The “new normal” won’t feel very normal — restaurant dining rooms are closed, masks are a must, gatherings of six or more are banned — but it is, at least, a little less abnormal. It will be two weeks before we know if the relaxed restrictions cause a rise in cases and hospitalizations, since that’s how long the virus takes to incubate. Meanwhile, we’re also about to enter into a new phase of the politics of the pandemic. Raimondo has had center stage to herself for about two months, making sweeping decisions by executive fiat and getting rewarded with strong approval numbers. But the announcement that she’s scaling back her daily briefings to just weekdays — and on Monday moving to a venue that lets reporters be in the room — is another step toward normalcy. General Assembly leaders for their part are returning from the periphery to reestablish some of their own authority over Rhode Island government. Their most urgent problem: a budget in shambles, with Friday’s official forecast suggesting revenue will be off $800 million, or roughly 10%, for the current and next fiscal years.

2. An $800 million two-year budget gap is so large that no high-ranking official has offered any concrete idea about how to solve it, beyond bromides about everything being on the table. (These days, that is one heavy table.) All sides are hoping Senator Reed and his colleagues can engineer a sizable infusion of federal funding between now and June 30. Reed made an opening bid Friday, introducing a bill that would send states and municipalities $600 billion in federal funds while also giving Rhode Island more flexibility to plug holes with the $1.25 billion it got in the CARES Act. There’s no guarantee that Reed, a member of the minority party in the Senate, will get his way. But Governor Raimondo sees little reason to start redrafting the budget until the state has more visibility into what Congress will do. “We’re not going to have any clarity until probably Memorial Day or the first week of June from the federal government on what the next stimulus is going to look like,” she said Friday during a conference call with reporters. “I’m not inclined to do much of anything for the next … maybe three weeks, because there’s so much unknown from the federal government.” The House Finance Committee isn’t waiting: its members are expected to resume work next week for the first time since March 12. But as Senate Finance Chairman Billy Conley summed it up Friday, “The road ahead will not be easy.”

3. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor had a newsy interview with Tim White during Friday’s taping of Newsmakers, discussing what to expect in Phase 1 of reopening and what lies ahead in Phase 2, which could start within two weeks. Pryor said outdoor dining should be allowed during Phase 1, and indicated salons and barbershops should be able to open in Phase 2. “We’d like to start to introduce a checklist like we’ve done for retailers,” Pryor said. “Retailers in order to reopen have a very short checklist they have to go through, on sanitation procedures and social distancing and how they’re managing lines and making sure people are not crowded — keeping people safe. There’s a checklist they produce and they post in their establishment. We’re going to do the same for hair-cutters.”

4. Some folks familiar with Secretary Pryor from his work in Rhode Island may not know he led the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation that managed the post-9/11 rebuilding in New York City and was also Connecticut’s education commissioner when the Sandy Hook shooting happened. On Newsmakers, Tim White asked Pryor if he saw any parallels between those crises and the challenge facing Rhode Island today. “What I take away from these tragedies is they cannot stop our optimism, and our forward movement, and our humanity,” Pryor said. “And I know in this case, with this virus, at least we know that scientists are working on an eventual vaccine. At least we know exactly what we can do now — we can socially distance, we can wear our masks, we can take it step by step, we can abide the rules — and you know what? We will get through this.”

5. Members of the Providence City Council are questioning why Mayor Elorza keeps issuing stricter COVID-19 directives than Governor Raimondo.

6. Eli Sherman and Walt Buteau look at the disparate impact COVID-19 is having in some of Rhode Island’s most disadvantaged communities.

7. Worth your time: The New York Times looks at how Brown’s John Friedman views the post-coronavirus economic landscape, McKay Coppins on the surreal experience of flying during the pandemic, and Derek Thompson on how the crisis will transform retail.

8. Senator Whitehouse has appeared in a Wall Street Journal editorial not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times since a week ago Monday.

9. Word around the State House is Providence City Council Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan plans to run in the Democratic primary for Senate District 5, challenging incumbent Democrat Sam Bell. (Ryan declined to comment Friday night.)

10. Bloomberg News spotlights a financial upswing in East Providence.

11. The Massachusetts 4th Congressional District race is starting to crystallize, with a top tier of candidates emerging as both the financial frontrunners and the first to say they’ve made the Sept. 1 Democratic primary ballot. But the hopefuls all continue to face the same challenge — how do you get attention and stand out when voters are distracted by both a global pandemic and a marquee U.S. Senate contest?

12. Rhode Island lost one of its business legends this week with the passing of 93-year-old Ann & Hope co-founder Irwin Chase, who helped inspire Sam Walton to create Wal-Mart and Harry Cunningham to launch Kmart. You can read his obituary here.

13. Thank God: Robert Caro is safe and healthy.

14. I’ll be back on WGBH 89.7 FM’s Under the Radar with Callie Crossley this Sunday at 6 p.m. as part of a regional news roundup. Tune in!

15. Set your DVRs: This week on NewsmakersSecretary Pryor. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. 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 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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