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With regional restrictions still in place, RI has spent $1M on tests for travelers

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island has spent about $1 million on travel-related coronavirus tests, a cost that’s likely to increase more quickly as the tri-state area again restricts Ocean State travelers.

Rhode Islanders traveling to other New England states – except New Hampshire – are currently required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test if they don’t want to quarantine for 14 days. (A second exception is Washington County residents traveling to Vermont, which determines travel restrictions by county.)

The same became true again last week for New York and New Jersey, which make travel policy decisions in-step with Connecticut. The three states previously restricted Rhode Island travel for a period of time in August.

The state-by-state travel rules are a headache for people with family living on either side of the border, and Gov. Gina Raimondo has repeatedly warned the policies hurt the state’s economy. Many businesses – already struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic – rely heavily on cross-border commerce, which is especially important in a state that’s only about 50 miles long and 35 miles wide.

The governor underscored the point last week after an outbreak of cases among Providence College students helped trigger the new travel restrictions in the tri-state area.  

“To all of the people of PC who played a hand in this: these are real consequences,” Raimondo said during a news conference. “This is hurting people’s business in Rhode Island.”

It’s also costing the state.

Rhode Island health officials this summer announced they would offer free tests to anyone with imminent travel plans to any other state where visiting is restricted. (There are some exceptions to the restrictions, including work- and medical-related travel.)

As of Friday, the state had administered 7,903 tests at the R.I. Convention Center for people who said they planned to travel, according to health officials. At $120 per test, the state has spent $948,360 on tests alone.

That number could also increase more rapidly now that Rhode Island travelers are restricted again from the tri-state area.

“We saw increased demand when a few states put us on their travel advisory list,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said in a statement about travel-related tests.

For Rhode Island to get removed from the travel restrictions of other states would require a decline in overall cases. In addition to an examination of other states’ positivity rates – a measure of new cases compared to testing – many Northeast states tie travel policy to new cases as a share of population.

For Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, travel is restricted from other states with an average of 10 or more cases per 100,000 residents. Massachusetts is even stricter, with an average of six cases per 100,000 residents.

As of Monday, Rhode Island hovered right around 10 cases per 100,000 residents, reporting more than 100 new cases in five of the last seven days. (Rhode Island’s population: just over 1 million.)

The Raimondo administration has lobbied Massachusetts state officials to look more favorably at its neighbor to the south, which has boasted a relatively stable positivity rate for multiple months.

Rhode Island also has been testing at a relatively high volume compared to other states, which health officials argue works against the state when it comes to national and regional comparisons like those used for travel policies.

“Our aggressive testing strategy is key to our overall response as it allows us to quickly quarantine exposed individuals and prevent further transmission, but it does also result in comparatively higher incidence rates,” Wendelken said last week.

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

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

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