The city has continued to see widespread disobedience of statewide social distancing mandates and a recent local order closing recreation fields, Mayor Allan Fung said Tuesday.
“It’s been absolutely ridiculous,” he said, noting that the milder temperatures over the weekend served to exacerbate the issued at locations such at the Cranston High School West football field and Doric Park.
Cautioning that continued instances of group gatherings could spur a more dramatic lockdown order from the state level amid the COVID-19 crisis, he added: “Stay at home. It’s not a joke. We need to do our part to try and flatten that curve … It’s getting to the point where it’s frustrating.”
As part of a supplemental emergency declaration issued last week, Fung ordered the closure of the city’s recreation fields. He said Parks and Recreation Director Tony Liberatore placed approximately 50 signs around the city to notify visitors of the closure – but that led to other acts of defiance.
“Almost half of them were ripped down,” the mayor said.
As a result, he added: “I hated to do it, but we asked [Liberatore] to buy chains and locks for those courts and fields that we can.”
The mayor said the city has attempted to be lenient in terms of continued use of the community’s walking tracks, provided people adhere to social distancing guidelines. He cautioned, however: “If it gets out of hand, we’re going to close those down, too.”
The situation has played out on social media as well. On Monday, Liberatore posted a screenshot on Facebook of a text message, sent by a local youth football coach, inviting parents to have their players attend a workout.
“This is what we are up against with the virus and how it spreads,” he wrote.
Last week, prior to the mayor’s order regarding the closure of recreation fields, he posted on Facebook about the response he received upon encountering a gathering at the Cranston High School West football field.
“You can’t fix stupid,” he wrote.
Those posts unsurprisingly generated lengthy comment threads, with various participants expressing exasperation or anger and others – including the football coach who sent the text – defending what had taken place or criticizing the public nature of the online conversation.
Perhaps more alarming to city residents was the news that the CVS location at the intersection of Park and Reservoir avenues was closed for 24 hours over the weekend after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
A spokesperson for CVS told local media that the building had been disinfected after its closure Saturday night, and that co-workers of the employee involved – for whom no identifying information was provided – were placed under quarantine and still receiving pay.
The store reopened Sunday. State health officials were said to have been notified of the situation.
On Tuesday, however, Fung said he had learned of the closure through news reports. He said he has received a number of inquiries from concerned members of the community regarding the CVS situation, and that he and other municipal leaders have become increasingly concerned over what he said is a lack of communication from the state level regarding local positive tests or suspected cases of the virus.
The state Department of Health has provided only statewide breakdowns of the number of positive, pending and negative tests for much of the month. In recent days, it has provided county-level data – a move it said was made possible due to the rising number of positive tests and the ability to protect patient privacy.
“We’re getting frustrated because we’re not getting notified of the positive test results. I found out about that one in the news … We can’t have incidents where there might be a positive case and we’re not knowing about it,” Fung said.
He added: “We’re pushing for numbers at the localized level instead of just the county level that they’re doing now … I get there’s HIPPA privacy concerns, but at the very least we need to know what’s going on in Cranston.”
Fung on Monday said from a financial standpoint, the city is prepared to weather the current crisis for at least the immediate future.
Layoffs are “not at all” being considered at this point, he said, while the city’s reserves have staved off any concerns over cash flow in the short term.
“We’re holding fine right now, and that’s why having that rainy day fund is good,” he said.
Fung said the city’s current financial standing made it possible to provide a one-month extension of the fourth-quarter local tax deadline, from April 15 to May 15. He acknowledged, however, that as the situation drags on, the strain will increase.
“We can’t go beyond that much further,” he said.
Fung on Monday said city officials were preparing financial documentation to submit to the state as part of an application for disaster assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Other steps are also underway. City Hall remains open on a limited basis with “basically a skeleton staff,” the mayor said, and most employees are working from home while others are physically present on a rotating basis.
One of the entrances to the building has been closed, leaving the main entrance and the accessible entrance as the only points of access. An employee has been stationed to handle inquiries and direct anyone coming in, and a drop-box is available for those making tax payments. Only checks are being accepted, and those seeking a receipt are asked to leave a self-addressed stamped envelope for it to be mailed. The use of online payment and other resources is being encouraged.
Fung said the Cranston Police Department is also working to implement a new schedule designed to stagger officers’ shifts. Doing so, he said, will help ensure any potential coronavirus exposure within the department is limited.
“We’re following what a lot of other police departments across the country are trying to do,” he said.
Elsewhere, Cranston Public Schools on Monday joined schools around the state in a move to “distance learning.” Gov. Gina Raimondo announced the remote instruction plan last week, and it is scheduled to last through at least April 3 as school buildings remain closed.
“On a positive note, I heard things were going very well with the distance learning,” Fung said Tuesday.
Fire Department adds new rescues
As part of the city’s preparedness efforts, two rescues will be added to the Cranston Fire Department’s roster of vehicles.
The additions were announced last week through separate press releases from Fung’s office and the city’s firefighters’ union, IAFF Local 1363.
The move will bring the city’s total number of rescues to six. It involves redirecting three scheduled positions on fire engines to the Fire Department’s EMS Division, which the mayor’s statement indicates has been “heavily burdened as a result of this crisis.”
One of the new rescues, which was already in use on a part-time basis, was activated immediately for full-time use. The other vehicle was being outfitted for deployment at some point this week.
According to Fung’s statement, Local 1363 President Scott Robinson reached out to the administration “because the firefighting family were concerned about the residents who are in need of rescue services during this unprecedented pandemic.”
“Since the first U.S. cases [of COVID-19] started in late February, the department has seen our rescue runs increase from our prior year,” the mayor’s statement reads. “In order to appropriately respond to our citizens who are in need of our services as well as alleviate the mental and physical toll this type of call leaves on our EMS personnel, IAFF local President Robinson and his board devised a plan to re-assign scheduled resources to man a 5th and 6th rescue at no additional cost to the Cranston taxpayers.”
“I am extremely appreciative of President Robinson’s initiation of this arrangement and the willingness of the men and women of our department to bring forward a solution to help better serve our community during this crisis,” Fung said in the statement. “It will also allow our valuable first responders the chance to debrief, decompress, and decontaminate from these difficult calls for service … this type of out of the box thinking and collaboration during these unprecedented times is an example of our dedication and commitment to the residents.”
Robinson’s statement reads: “These are extremely drastic times. We are members of this community as well. We need to find collaborative ways between labor and management to protect our neighbors and friends, as well as protect the longevity of the men and women of the Cranston Fire Department, who are out providing emergency response. Adding two additional rescues will allow us to promptly and efficiently respond to the increase calls for help from within the city, appropriately screen patients for the disease and spend the time needed to decontaminate our patient care areas. This will also help to fight the mental and physical fatigue of our fire fighters responding to patients who are complaining of COVID-19 like symptoms.”
Robinson statement indicates that “by reducing the staffing on three engines on all four shifts, the firefighters were increasing their workload and risking their health and safety on the fire ground and other hazardous environments.”
He added: “We are trained from the beginning of our careers to perform a risk benefit analysis on every call where we respond. Our members felt the risk to ourselves is worth the benefit to our constituents, neighbors, friends, and families.”
Library extends closure
The Cranston Public Library has again extended the closure of all its branches, this time through at least April 5.
Ed Garcia, the library’s director, wrote in a message to the community that the decision was made in light of the state’s recommendation that libraries remain shut in keeping with public schools, which are conducting “distance learning” through at least April 5.
“The health of our library workers and our community is of the utmost importance,” Garcia wrote. “Libraries are by design unable to practice social distancing to the degree recommended by the Rhode Island Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reopening the library at this time has the potential to harm our community more than help.”
The library continues to offer online services. It has also provided other offerings for families during its closure, including a recent video presentation of student artwork on display as part of the ArtsFest exhibition at the Central Library and a new “StoryTime Online” program.
Garcia in his message outlined other important information regarding the library, including the extension of due dates on current loans through May 1 and the waiving of fines from March 1 through the end of the current crisis. Library cards that had been set to expire have also been extended through May 1.
He also wrote: “Ocean State Libraries has disabled the ability for patrons to place holds from the catalog so that we don’t create false expectations for when holds may be able to be picked-up. Holds that are currently on our shelves waiting to be picked-up will be available for up to one week after re-opening.”
Videos highlight COVID-19 response
During the last week, Fung has posted a number of videos featuring visits to various city departments. The short clips feature department heads and other key employees outlining service changes and preparations being made in light of the current crisis.
In one, Cranston Fire Department personnel describe the procedure being used for rescue runs. Dispatchers are asking questions of callers to determine the risk of COVID-19 exposure and the protocols utilized if the presence of the virus is suspected. Additional cleaning procedures have been adopted for vehicles after runs as well.
At the Cranston Police Department, Maj. Todd Patalano outlined the disinfectant procedures utilized for vehicles at the conclusion of shifts. Officers are also equipped with masks for themselves and subjects they encounter if the presence of the virus is suspected.
At the Cranston Senior Enrichment Center, Fung and Senior Services Director Jeff Barone highlighted the ongoing meals service being provided through the center’s kitchen. The center provides meals to various sites across the state, and the facility is also providing delivery and pick-up service for local seniors.
The center can be reached at 780-6000.
In another video, Fung and Cranston Municipal Court Administrator Elisabeth Bettis highlighted the procedures in place while the facility remains closed.
“Right now, we’re being as lenient as we can be,” Bettis said, noting that upcoming court dates have been rescheduled. Online payment of tickets remains available, while late fines and other penalties have been suspended.
The court can be reached at 477-5010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fung also spoke with Economic Development Director Larry DiBoni for a video, highlighting the resources and assistance available to local businesses during a particularly trying economic time. DiBoni’s office can be reached at 780-3166 or email@example.com.
The mayor’s videos can be viewed on his social media channels and on the Cranston Herald’s website, cranstononline.com.