Raimondo: Virus fight a 'marathon'

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Developments in the nation’s capital brought some fiscal “good news” during Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Wednesday briefing on the COVID-19 crisis – although her request for a panel of state legislative leaders to authorize the borrowing of up to $300 million has led to pushback locally.

Meanwhile, as Rhode Island’s number of confirmed cases of the virus rose by eight to a total of 132, the governor announced a new set of social distancing restrictions meant to limit the number of shoppers in large retail stores, including supermarkets, at a time.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint … We have to be preparing for the long hall, and there’s going to be ups and downs,” she said during what has become a daily, live streamed appearance from the State Room at the State House.

In terms of the new shopping restrictions, Raimondo on Wednesday said she planned to issue an executive order requiring active counts and restrictions by large retails on the number of customers within a store at any given time. The new rules – which were to be outlined through guidance from the Department of Business Regulation – will also require stores to “clean more thoroughly and clean more often” and provide for online shopping options whenever possible.

Raimondo said Rhode Island State Police have been informed of the order and that spot checks will be conducted as part of enforcement efforts.

She said large retailers have also been informed and acknowledged that issues such as crowds gathering outside stores may arise, at least in the early days.

“We’re going to monitor it, and I hope it works … because I want to keep you open,” she said, later adding: “For the people of Rhode Island, this is going to look different … If we need to adjust, we’ll adjust.”

In a related matter, Raimondo said she expects to announce a continuation of the current prohibition on dine-in service at bars, restaurants and other such establishments on Friday. When initially put in place more than a week ago, those restrictions were scheduled to expire March 30.

“For the purposes of planning, I can’t imagine a world in which we’re going to be able to reopen restaurants on Monday for in-room dining,” she said.

On the fiscal front, Raimondo said she awoke Wednesday to a text message from U.S. Sen. Jack Reed informing her that federal leaders have reached agreement on a sweeping $2 trillion aid agreement.

The unprecedented rescue package – which had yet to pass through Congress as of Wednesday’s deadline – includes $1.25 billion in assistance for Rhode Island.

Raimondo described the developments in Washington, D.C., as “welcome news and a relief for the people of Rhode Island.” When she read Reed’s text, she said, she “felt like a little bit of the weight was lifted.”

The rescue package additional includes direct payments to Americans, funding for expanded unemployment benefits, aid to hospitals and support for small businesses.

Updates on testing

During Tuesday’s briefing, Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said in addition to the State Health Laboratories, which currently has the capacity to conduct more than 200 tests daily, testing is now being done through hospitals and private laboratories.

As of Tuesday’s daily data update from the Department of Health, the number of negative and pending test results – 1,143 and 196, respectively – did not include the figures from those additional sites, although the number of positive cases is cumulative for all locations.

Approximately 3,000 people remained in quarantine as of Tuesday’s update – a figure that still includes the nearly 1,700 members of the Cranston High School West community.

Alexander-Scott on Tuesday said health officials are “are working to get more and more numbers out each day” and to fold the full data from all sites into the state’s daily figures. She specifically mentioned East Side Clinical Laboratory as having “stepped up in a huge way” to support testing efforts.

Raimondo on Tuesday again said she hopes to dramatically ramp up the state’s testing capacity, but that “building our own supply chain network” for supplies such as swabs and personal protective equipment is an essential first step. While progress has been made, the governor said that “every state is vying for the resources, [and] frankly every country.”

“We’re moving swiftly in this direction … It is my goal to be able to get us to a place, by this time next week, where we’re testing 600, 700, 800 people a day,” she said.

Raimondo and Alexander-Scott said the expanded testing – combined with what the health director described as the expansion of a “robust contact tracing team” – will be essential in terms of gauging the extend of COVID-19’s spread. That, in turn, will allow for the easing of social distancing measures that have been imposed, the governor said.

Monday’s data update from the state included more recent additions – breakdowns in the number of cases by county and by age group. The breakdowns were not provided for Tuesday’s data because of the late arrival of some data and the need for additional follow-up, according to the Department of Health.

Of the 106 positive cases identified as of Monday, the vast majority – 75 – were in Providence County. Washington and Newport counties followed with 10 each. Kent County had seven cases and Bristol County had four cases.

In the age breakdown, the figures show cases relatively evenly spread among the people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Each of those groups had between 17 and 21 positive cases.

Two of the cases were in children under 10, and another four were in children aged 10-19. There were 12 cases among people in their 60s, 11 among people in their 70s and two among people in their 90s. There were no reported cases in the 80-89 age group.

Alexander-Scott on Tuesday said while people over the age of 60 and those with underlying health issues are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the virus, the age breakdown speaks to the importance of people across generations taking social distancing and other precautions seriously.

“The virus does not pick and choose who to infect … Everyone has to do their part. Young, middle-aged and older,” she said.

Travel concerns

Alexander-Scott also noted that Rhode Island COVID-19 cases have been increasingly linked to domestic travel, while earlier cases had been tied to trips abroad. On Monday, Raimondo announced a new executive order requiring that all travelers arriving at T.F. Green Airport would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

That order came following Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to order all non-essential businesses to close and issue a stay-at-home advisory to all Bay State residents. Raimondo acknowledged that she had contemplated more aggressive action to limit domestic travel across Rhode Island’s borders, but that Baker’s action led her to hold off on such a step.

On Tuesday, Raimondo also reiterated that she has no plans at this point to order a statewide lockdown – a move she said would further damage the state’s economy.

“I’m not going there. I don’t want to go there,” she said.

On Wednesday, Raimondo and Alexander-Scott said state officials are keeping a close eye on people traveling to Rhode Island from New York City area, which has become a hotbed of the current crisis.

Questions were raised during Wednesday’s briefing regarding anecdotal reports of New Yorkers retreating to second homes in the Ocean State and of expecting mothers from the city traveling here to give birth. Additionally, Westerly, Newport and Narragansett have all asked out-of-state travelers to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arriving in their communities.

Governor’s borrowing request

In terms of the state’s budget picture, Raimondo on Tuesday said her decision to request a meeting of the Disaster Emergency Funding Board – which includes House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, House Finance Chairman Marvin Abney and Senate Finance Chairman William Conley – to act on her borrowing plan is “absolutely constitutional, and frankly, it’s necessary at this time.”

She reiterated that sentiment on Wednesday, although opposition to the process being utilized had already arrived quickly from some quarters.

In a statement, Rhode Island GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki questioned the constitutionality of the governor’s request and said legal action is being considered.

“The Disaster Emergency Funding Board cannot ignore the state constitution’s restrictions on debt … Under our form of government, it is the voters not a handful of State House politicians who decide Rhode Island needs hundreds of millions in debt. There are constitutional ways to get through this crisis,” she said.

She added: “To prevent our constitution from being violated, we are considering legal action to prevent the Disaster Emergency Funding Board from borrowing funds from any private sector entity without voter approval. A public health emergency doesn’t end our constitutional democracy.”

Others, including Providence state Sen. Sam Bell, have been critical of the General Assembly’s leadership for not finding a means for lawmakers to conduct business remotely during the current crisis – and, as a result, failing to address the needs of Rhode Islanders during a historic economic and public health crisis.

Raimondo has framed the borrowing request as a sensible – and necessary – step.

The governor previously delayed the state tax filing and payment deadline until July 15, while the widespread closure of businesses – and of the state’s casinos – has dramatically affected revenue. Meanwhile, claims for unemployment insurance and other assistance have far outpaced previous records.

“This is extraordinary, obviously, because we are living under and emergency situation … It’s prudent to line up liquidity so we can continue to operate, continue to pay the bills, until we can get back on out feet,” Raimondo said.

She added: “This should not alarm anyone. This is actually good news. It means we are taking action.”

According to a statement from the General Assembly, the state law that established the Disaster Emergency Funding Board allows the state to borrow emergency funding with a repayment period of up to two years.

The board’s meeting will be held at 11:30 a.m. on March 26 at the State House.

“Due to restrictions on more than 10 people in a room to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there will be no access to the State Room, but public comments are welcome and can be emailed to relief-funding@rilegislature.gov,” the Assembly’s release reads. “The meeting will be televised live on Capitol Television, which can be seen on Cox on Channels 15 and 61, in high definition on Cox Channel 1013, on Full Channel on Channel 15 and on Channel 34 by Verizon subscribers. It will also be live streamed at www.rilegislature.gov/CapTV.”

The following is a summary of various announcements and developments associated with the governor’s briefings from the last several days:

On Tuesday, Raimondo announced that Care.com has agreed to provide 90 days of “free premium service” to Rhode Islanders as part of an effort to provide child care or adult day care

to those who continue to work or are working from home. She urged people interested in volunteering to explore the service as well as a means of connecting with people in need.

She also announced that several organizations – Boys & Girls Club, Greater Providence YMCA, Children’s Workshop, Children’s Friend and Learning Brooke – have agreed to provide on-site child care for essential hospital workers. Those arrangements will be coordinated through the state Department of Human Services.

Child care facilities have been closed at the governor’s request as public schools remain closed, but Raimondo on Tuesday said such facilities that which to remain open may do so under emergency regulations prepared through DHS. She said enforcement of those regulations will involved surprise visits.

“I know this is hard. I know that every solution that I put out there is imperfect … Our response is incremental and will continue to improve,” she said.

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Raimondo on Tuesday said she has received “very positive” early reports regarding the statewide move to “distance learning,” which began Monday for all K-12 schools.

“The early reports, recognizing it was one day, are very positive … Obviously, there are many kinks in the system to be worked out. We aren’t pretending that there aren’t,” she said.

On Wednesday, she said while there have been “glitches,” the distance learning approach has gone well thus far.

“Overall, a few days into it, I feel great about it. It’s going better than I could have expected,” she said.

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Raimondo on Sunday announced an executive order requiring all recreation, entertainment and close-contact businesses

– including theaters, cinemas, bowling alleys, gyms, fitness centers, barbers, nail salons and tattoo parlors – to close as of 5 p.m. on Monday. She additionally reiterated a directive that people should not gather in groups of more than 10.

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At the recommendation of the state’s Board of Elections, Raimondo has signed an executive order moving the presidential preference primary

from April 28 to June 2. Additionally, voting will be conducted primarily through mail ballots.

“This is an opportunity for us to be innovative,” the governor said.

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On March 19, the governor said the state’s court system

will not process any residential or commercial evictions for the next 30 days. She also issued a renewed warning on price gouging, urging Rhode Islanders who experience this activity to contact the office of Attorney General Peter Neronha.

“The crisis is bringing out the best in most people. It’s also unfortunately true that the crisis is bringing out the worst in some others,” Raimondo said.

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On March 20, Raimondo and Alexander-Scott both spoke of the importance of mental health services

during the ongoing crisis. The governor reiterated that insurers have been mandated to provide coverage for such services provided via phone or video in “the same way as if you went into the office.”

She also highlighted the BH Link hotline, which is now available for adults and children. It can be reached at (401) 414-LINK.

“I think it’s more important than ever that we pay attention to our mental health needs just as we do to our physical health needs,” she said, adding: “Staying at home doesn’t mean you have to be isolated.”

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