Editor's note: This story appears on our websites as part of a partnership between Beacon Communications and East Bay Newspapers to share coverage of the COVID-19 crisis.
Beginning Monday, when Rhode Island transitions to Phase 2 of its economic reboot, residents will be able to dine indoors, cut and color their hair, get a new coat of nail polish for the first time in months and visit a spa to shake off all their COVID-19 stresses.
And in between all those activities, they can drop off and pick up the kids at soccer, lacrosse or baseball practice.
Gov. Gina Raimondo announced that the state is allowing organized sports to resume on June 1 — albeit with restrictions (like all things in life these days).
Mirroring the restrictions for summer camps, youth sports activities must involve stable groups of 15 or fewer people — so a small team practice with coaches and players will be acceptable, as would activities like tennis or other small-group gatherings. Organized games between different teams or tournament-like gatherings will be prohibited for now, but the governor shared an optimistic view of those as well, suggesting they might be able to resume in July.
Youth sports were among the highlights of the governor’s Thursday COVID-19 briefing, when she also talked about rent relief, the devastating impact of the virus on nursing homes, reopening of the state’s casinos in a week or two, and why she is not yet using a $1.25 billion federal stimulus package to help small businesses.
Before outlining what organized sports will look like in June, Raimondo spoke directly to Rhode Island children.
“I know this is really hard for you guys. I know distance learning is kind of drag right now … I know a lot of you are kind of down right now,” she said. “I’m sorry that we have to be living like this, and I know that it’s really trough for you.”
However, here’s the good news.
“Summer’s going to be really good,” she said. “You’re going to get to go to camp, you’re going to get to go to the beach, you’re going to get to go to the park. It’s not going to be the same as it was last summer, but you’re going to be able to do these things.”
Raimondo said youth, and she later added “adult,” sports must operate within guidelines that will be released later today at reopeningri.com. Aside from the stable groups of 15 or fewer people, organized sports will look like this:
“I feel great about this, because I’m anxious to see kids outside, running around, playing soccer or baseball,” the governor said. “Get outside. Play. … It’ll help us all get back to a sense of normalcy, which I know everyone wants.”
Restaurants and hair salons
Also beginning Monday, restaurants will be allowed to host inside dining, with restrictions:
Also, stand-alone bars will not be allowed to reopen.
Similarly, personal service businesses like hair or nail salons will operate as reservation-only. They are discouraged from having a waiting room of any kind — “you’ll be asked to wait in your car,” the governor said. Cleaning will be frequent throughout the day. And both people — employee and customer — must wear masks throughout.
“I know you’re thinking, ‘Governor, that sounds more like a hospital than a hair salon.’ I get that. It’s not going to be as fun and pleasurable as it is normally.”
But it’s only going to last a month, she added, suggesting that many of these restrictions could be reduced in July.
Evictions and rents
Reminding people that this crisis has hit hardest those who could least afford it, Raimondo talked about the mounting troubles of people who are falling behind on rent payments and at risk of evictions.
About a month ago, the state set aside $1.5 million in a rental support fund for those impacted by COVID-19. “It was depleted quite quickly, and we couldn’t get to everyone who needed it,” the governor said. Today the state moved another $5 million into that fund.
“This is a huge issue, and frankly it’s a complex issue,” she said. “This isn’t the last time I’m going to have to talk about this. We need a bigger, more thoughtful solution. There are going to be many people struggling to pay the rents in the coming months.”
She announced the state is working to create a rent mediation system, so that an independent body can resolve situations between landlords and tenants impacted by COVID-19. Asked later in the press briefing why Rhode Island has devoted so little money to a problem conservatively estimated to grow to $20 million in Rhode Island, Raimondo admitted she is not willing to just throw money at the problem.
“There are two sides to this equation,” she said. “We want to help landlords get what’s owed to them, but also put folks on a longer-term payment system so they don’t get evicted, don’t end up homeless.”
Residents can apply for assistance at: HousingHelpRI.com.
10 more testing sites
Raimondo reminded people of the state’s testing goals — which she has always linked to reopening the economy. She said that if the state had the ability to swiftly test everyone at any time, move quickly to quarantine, isolate and treat them, and reduce their opportunity to spread the virus to others, then there would be no need to restrict the economy with such drastic measures.
That’s why she wants the state to be testing 10,000 people per day this summer, and capable of testing 15,000 to 20,000 by the fall, so they can safely open schools around the state. To that end, she announced 10 new testing sites, at CVS locations around Rhode Island.
More information will be available at CVS.com, where residents will be able to make a reservation, drive to the CVS, self-administer a test, leave it in a secure kit outside the store and receive results in two to three days.
She added that Rhode Island “leads the nation” in testing. “We’ve tested 14 percent of our population. That is by far the highest in America,” she said. “You have many states that are at 4, 5 or 6 percent of their population … The testing has been a critical component of reopening our economy, and we’re going to continue to ramp up our efforts.”
22 more deaths
Dr. James McDonald of the Rhode Island Department of Health delivered the latest Covid-19 statistics in Rhode Island:
McDonald also took a moment to deliver some personal comments about how the pandemic has impacted his family, and particularly a daughter who is a high school senior and has watched many of her youthful milestones get washed away. He said his daughter and her peers are absorbing life lessons about loss and resiliency. “This is what adults do,” he said. “They process things; they show resilience … Life isn’t just cupcakes and roses, as much as I’d like it to be for our kids.”
He offered a hopeful message that the kids dealing with adversity today will be stronger, more mature and more resilient adults.
State assistance for small businesses
Jim Hummell asked the governor a series of questions about how the state is choosing to spend a $1.5 billion federal relief package. Pressed for answers, Gov. Raimondo admitted that they are holding much of the money in reserve, for now, as they wait to see whether the U.S. government will be sending any more relief to Rhode Island.
“It is absolutely my intention to get more money into this economy, to help small businesses, to help get people trained for jobs … I am just waiting a little bit more, and I’m talking weeks, not months,” the governor said.
She talked about the state’s current $800 million budget deficit. “The only way to close an $800 million deficit is a lot of layoffs,” she said. “I’m talking teachers, firefighters, police officers, state workers …”
She also mentioned the current spending bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. It includes $1 billion for Rhode Island. “If I knew that was going to pass and that money is coming to Rhode Island, I’d release money to small businesses today,” she said. But she’s not counting on that happening.
The governor also went on to talk about sectors of the workforce that will be severely impacted, even when the economy springs back to life. “If you’re in retail, let’s say you’re a retail clerk, and those are your only skills, you’re going to have to get another job,” she said, adding that she’d like to see some of the federal money directed to job training and re-training programs.
Casinos opening soon
Raimondo said they will have more information about the reopening of the state’s casinos during her Friday briefing, but when pressed for an answers, she admitted that they will be allowed to open either June 8 or June 15. She said the only determining factor at this point is how quickly they can be ready to open, with the right safety measures in place.
The nursing home death rate
The most impactful discussion revolved around the exceedingly high rate of nursing-home deaths vs. the rest of the population. Asked if Rhode Island has done enough to protect nursing home residents, the governor was both defiant and blunt.
“I can’t find anyone else who’s doing a much better job,” Raimondo said. “We’re trying everything we know how to do with nursing homes. We’ve done 52 missions into nursing homes to see what can be done.” She said the state has deployed the Rhode Island National Guard to nursing homes, recruited hundred of volunteers, boosted salaries for low-wage workers, and dispatched piles of personal protective equipment.
Nonetheless, nursing homes are exceedingly dangerous, she said, calling the prevailing factors like the close quarters, the shared facilities, the rotating the labor force, the compromised and frail population a “perfect storm” of risk.
“Infection control in these environments is incredibly difficult,” she said. “The nature of the virus is such that it’s really brutal on the nursing home population … And as a state, we are really dependent on nursing homes; our percentage of residents living in nursing homes might be higher than any other state in America. And there are inherent dangers in any of these communal living environments.”
She said this pandemic has exposed many flaws in the congregate-care living system, and long-term, the state and country may need new solutions. “Is this the healthiest way to take care of our elderly loved ones?” she asked.