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RI to pay $4 million to lease RI Convention Center for makeshift hospital

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island has agreed to pay nearly $4 million over six months to use the R.I. Convention Center as a makeshift hospital for Lifespan to treat low-acuity COVID-19 patients.

The R.I. State Properties Committee on Wednesday approved the deal made between the state and the R.I. Convention Center Authority, the quasi-public agency that owns the taxpayer-subsidized entertainment complex in Providence.

Rhode Island will pay $660,000 per month to use the facility, which is about 25% less than what’s typically generated in a month when the facility is operating under normal circumstances, according to the authority’s executive director, Jim McCarvill.

The public health crisis has forced the facility to postpone most of its bookings and McCarvill said the state decided to lease the building rather than take it over because officials expect the cost will be reimbursed by the federal government – meaning the facility can still make money, but not from state coffers.

Rhode Island is slated to receive $1.25 billion from the federal CARES Act this month to cover costs related to COVID-19.

“The creation of the hospital, the restoration of the space and the rental of the facility should come out of the federal support money,” McCarvill explained. “Taxes are taxes, but it’s coming from a different pool of money.”

The Convention Center deal marks the third agreement the state has made with different entities to set up makeshift hospitals across the state. The State Properties Committee approved two deals last week with the Carpionato Group in Cranston and the Quonset Development Corp. in North Kingstown, respectively.

Quonset Development is a quasi-public agency – making the deal look similar to the one with the Convention Center – while the the Carpionato Group is a private developer.

The state will pay $100,000 per month for a month-to-month lease with Quonset and $2 million for a six-month lease to the Carpionato Group. The Cranston property served as longtime offices for Citizens Bank employees, but has remained vacant for a couple years since the financial institution moved to its new headquarters in Johnston.

The makeshift hospitals are being set up to serve as low-acuity treatment centers for people who are recovering from COVID-19. Gov. Gina Raimondo on Thursday revealed part of the state’s modeling that shows demand on Rhode Island hospital resources could peak anywhere between April 27 and May 8.

The scale of hospitalizations could range between 2,250 and 4,300, Raimondo said, adding that she’s optimistic the state is on track currently to do even better than the lower projection.

“That’s a number we could handle within our existing hospital system,” Raimondo said about the lower range. She did not provide a best-case scenario in the shared projections.

The deal with the Convention Center means about 20 employees of the facility’s private operator, ASM Global, will remain on staff to provide some security and administrative services. McCarvill said ASM is part of the deal in name only and has been forced to lay off about 100 people.

But the contract specifically stipulates that those employees who will remain will not work in any areas with patients. The workers also are not allowed to provide any medical services, according to the contract.

A spokesperson for ASM did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but McCarvill said remaining staff have been laid off. There may be a need to hire electricians and plumbers in the months to come, he added.

“[The state] shall provide to [ASM] employees all training and personal protective equipment deemed reasonably necessary or required for their protection,” the dealmakers wrote in the contract. “In no event shall [ASM] employees be obligated to perform any medical services.”

When looking for the locations to site the makeshift hospitals, state officials visited several other facilities, including the Louis Pasteur Building, five buildings at the University of Rhode Island, the former Memorial Hospital and the former St. Joseph Hospital.

In a letter explaining why those other locations were not chosen, R.I. Department of Administration director Brett Smiley wrote that “many of these buildings have been vacant for long periods; others just didn’t fit the needs for a temporary hospital.”  

McCarvill said most of the bookings handled by the Convention Center Authority, which also includes the Dunkin Donuts Center and the Vets Memorial Auditorium, haven’t been lost completely. The goal right now, he said, is to get the hospital up and running — which could happen within a week — and then focus on the question of what comes next.

The agreement does allow the state and Convention Center to extend the lease — if it’s agreed it’s necessary. When asked whether another typical event would be held there before the end of the year, McCarvill’s response was candid.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’re built for big events, so we’ll be among the last to fully recover.”

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

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