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RI’s high rate of new COVID-19 cases complicates reopening economy May 8

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Daily new cases of COVID-19 need to start trending downward soon if Gov. Gina Raimondo wants to reopen the economy on May 8 while following the advice of the White House.

The Trump administration last week recommended states should wait to see a 14-day decline in new cases before launching the first of three phases of reopening. That remains a high hurdle for Rhode Island, which recorded its largest one-day increase yet on Friday, with 437 new cases.

But President Trump has also said the White House will leave it up to governors to decide how to reopen state economies, and Raimondo said Thursday declining cases is just one of the metrics she’s watching in making her decision. Her target date of May 8 — when her current stay-at-home executive order, first issued March 28, expires — is 14 days away.

“We’re looking at it more in terms of trends,” the governor explained during a daily briefing, adding that she is also watching hospitalizations, deaths and overall capacity in the health care system.

The good news in Rhode Island is that hospitalizations have plateaued this week; the bad news is that people continue to die, and new cases remain stubbornly high, which Raimondo said is frustrating.

“I keep hoping that when I get [new numbers] each day it will look different, but we’re stuck,” she said. “We’re not yet turning the corner. … It’s not surprising, but it’s frustrating.”

The stay-at-home order and other social distancing directives appear to have helped Rhode Island avoid early forecasts suggesting a surge of coronavirus cases would overwhelm hospitals, a scenario the governor and others are now optimistic will be avoided.

But without a vaccination or proven treatment, reopening the economy is tricky from a public health perspective, as it could result in another outbreak and throw the state back into a shutdown. Leaders in states across the country and nations around the world are grappling with the same predicament.

And Rhode Island already has evidence of how infections can spread in the workplace. The Health Department has confirmed roughly 100 COVID-19 cases associated with Taylor Farms, a food processing plant at Quonset, and about 80 cases tied to Daniele Inc., an Italian meat maker based out of Burrillville.

Daniele’s owners “have been very proactive,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said. “Masking of employees, screening for symptoms of all employees, and daily reporting to RIDOH have all been happening.”

Raimondo has been adamant about trying to get people back to work after upward of 180,000 Rhode Islanders have filed unemployment claims because of COVID-19. Her administration is currently drafting regulations about how to reopen safely.

For now, the governor is still optimistic that could begin happening in two weeks.

“I’m still eager to think about making some changes at May 8 to let people go back to work,” Raimondo said.  

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

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

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