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RI beach communities seeing fastest growth of new COVID-19 cases

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Newly released data show many seaside communities in Rhode Island have seen the fastest growth of new COVID-19 cases since July 3, as state leaders warn of overcrowding and lax social distancing on beaches and boats.

The R.I. Department of Health on Wednesday updated its list of total cases in each municipality for the first time since the day before the Fourth of July.

A Target 12 analysis shows cities and towns along the shoreline – including Middletown, Charlestown, Narragansett, Jamestown, Barrington, Newport and Bristol – have all seen the fastest growth rates of new cases over the two-week period, though total case counts remain small.

The communities are home to many state and local beaches, where Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the state is seeing clusters of new cases in recent weeks. The uptick doesn’t include any out-of-state tourists who test positive, as those cases don’t count toward the total in Rhode Island.

“Hotspots are connected to social gatherings on beaches and boats,” Alexander-Scott said during a news briefing Wednesday, suggesting that too many people have been disregarding social distancing and mask-wearing mandates to enjoy summer activities.

The overcrowding and new cases – which topped 100 people for the first time in a month on Tuesday – has spurred Gov. Gina Raimondo to scale back public parking to 25% of capacity at Misquamicut and Scarborough beaches in Westerly and Narragansett, respectively.

“Last month, even with our reduced parking, our state beaches saw 50,000 more cars than the same time last year,” Raimondo said. “I believe the town beaches are similar.”

After weeks of reporting relatively stable case totals, Westerly reported six new cases — representing a 9.5% increase — over the last two weeks. Narragansett reported seven new cases, marking a 16.3% increase. The statewide growth rate was about 4.5% over that time period.

Prior to the recent growth, it took nearly two months for Narragansett to report an increase of seven cases, according to a Target 12 collection of historic case data.

Overall, the number of new cases within each of the seaside communities is relatively small compared to the 216 new cases reported in Providence over the last two weeks.

But the growth among those communities is easily outpacing the capital city. For example, Middletown reported 14 new cases, for a 25% increase compared to two weeks ago. Providence reported 216 new cases, representing only a 3.7% increase.

In Charlestown, six new cases represented a 25% increase. In Newport, 13 new cases represented a 16.3% increase. In Bristol 14 new cases marked a 10.4% increase.

The trend bucks what public health officials had seen earlier in the pandemic, when urban areas – including Providence, Pawtucket, North Providence, East Providence and Central Falls – reported rapid growth of new cases.

During the last two weeks, growth hasn’t exceeded 4% for any of those communities, according to the state data. There are also a handful of seaside communities — including South Kingstown, North Kingstown and Little Compton — which have managed to keep new case counts down over the last two weeks.

In an effort to tamp down on future clusters, Raimondo said the state plans to increase enforcement presence at beaches starting this weekend.

“I want you to go to the beach and enjoy that, but we are struggling to keep the crowds under control,” Raimondo said. “We’re seeing really big crowds.”

In Bristol County, Massachusetts, new cases grew slower through the first two weeks of July, as the statewide growth rate totaled just 2.2% during that time, according to state data released each Wednesday.

Like Rhode Island, the numbers remained low in Bristol County communities. The growth between July 1 and July 15 ranged from a low of 0% in Berkley, Dighton and Raynham to a high of only 7.1% in Freetown.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Kim Kalunian and Tim White contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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