By DANIEL KITTREDGE As the pandemic wears on, Rhode Islanders across all walks of life have grappled with how to adapt. In some ways, the last nine months can be compared with the way communities responded in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001,
As the pandemic wears on, Rhode Islanders across all walks of life have grappled with how to adapt.
In some ways, the last nine months can be compared with the way communities responded in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee told a group of Cranston civic leaders during a virtual Community Focus Group event last week.
At the time, he was in his first term as mayor of Cumberland. He remembers prayer services, conversations with clergy members and community-driven efforts to raise funds to support those affected by the attacks.
“Clearly it was a rally around that crisis … it was very organic and it was very powerful,” he said.
The months since the arrival of COVID-19 in the Ocean State have brought similar anxiety and uncertainty, McKee said – but even as the virus touches all segments of the community, from schools to small businesses, he believes there has been something lacking, a missing sense of togetherness and shared purpose.
“We’re under attack right now … Everybody’s being pressed, and yet I’m not really seeing a real strong community response,” he said.
The focus of last week’s virtual session – part of a series of events held with community leaders in Westerly, Central Falls and other cities and towns – was on addressing the disconnects within Cranston and finding more effective ways to convey key public health messages.
“How do we make, in this case, Cranston safe and safer, and contain this virus?” McKee said, adding: “Right now, we have a very high infection rate in the state of Rhode Island … Until we get that under control, we’re going to continue to struggle in all the areas we all represent.”
Among the participants in the focus group were City Council members Ed Brady and Chris Paplauskas; incoming council members Jessica Marino, Robert Ferri, Nicole Renzulli and Matthew Reilly; state Rep.-elect Brandon Potter; Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Mass; former mayor John O’Leary; and Grace Swinski, coordinator of the Cranston Family Center. Paulette Hamilton, McKee’s deputy chief of staff, led the discussion.
Brady, who is part of the restaurant ownership group whose establishments include the Thirsty Beaver, spoke of the challenges he has experienced both as a business owner and a civic leader during the current crisis. He, like McKee, has been an advocated for more state relief for businesses.
“My job has been just, in the Cranston community, to listen … A lot of people are exhausted as we go into this holiday season,” he said.
Marino said she sees “mixed messages” as having been an issue during the course of the pandemic, both at the national level – where the “Trump factor” has played into the dynamic – and locally. Some community members, she said, feel they will not be affected by COVID or have decided to go about their lives as normal because they see others doing the same.
Fatigue, too, has played a role, Marino said.
“Let’s face it, after a while, people tune out,” she said, urging “creative” efforts to connect with various segments of the community regarding the continued seriousness of the situation and the importance of following public health guidance. She suggested a social media campaign featuring messages from trusted and known local personalities.
Steve Frias, an attorney, historian and former candidate for the General Assembly, endorsed Marino’s suggestion. He compared the current situation to anti-drug campaigns, saying that a “just say no” message in that case was far less effective than hearing real stories from people affected.
“Social distancing requires social acceptance … Get people convinced it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Referring to front line workers, other essential employees, small businesses and others, Frias also said that “recognizing the sacrifices these people have made for the public health of all of us is imperative.”
“We need shared sacrifice,” he said.
Potter said he is concerned that during the pandemic, “we’re not validating one another’s experience.” This year’s election campaign, he said, exacerbated the issue, creating a “false dichotomy” that overshadowed the real toll of the virus on nursing homes, health care workers, businesses, families and overall public health.
“Unfortunately, this virus has turned into a political act of theater in a lot of ways … I think it’s really important that we validate one another’s experiences,” he said, adding: “Everyone’s experience with this virus is not one and the same.”
Reilly applauded McKee for taking a “bottom-up approach” to the crisis, saying: “This isn’t going to be solved by one person standing on high and dictating down to the little people what’s going to be done.”
He also agreed the pandemic has become politicized. “There’s no solution living in the extremes,” he said.
Nota-Masse said Cranston Public Schools’ recent move to full distance learning through at least Jan. 4 illustrates how connected various parts of the community are despite the disparity that exists in perception and experience during the pandemic.
“I’m not the finger-wagging type … However, what people do affects what everyone on this screen is able to do,” she said, adding: “All of those things are intertwined. We don’t operate separately.”
She continued: “We are begging people to follow the guidelines set forth by the Rhode Island Department of Health … I guess if you’re not impacted by it directly, it doesn’t seem real.”
Architect Ken Filarski made a similar point, saying: “Our experience is not visceral … People don’t think it’s real because they don’t see anybody really being sick.”
He also noted that many major companies have told employees to work from home through as far out as September 2021.
“It’s hard to comprehend the scale and the impact of all this,” he said.
Grace Swinski, co-coordinator of the Cranston Family Center, spoke of the way the crisis has hurt the most vulnerable families in the community. Housing insecurity in particular has become an even more significant problem.
“Right now, we’re doing a lot of Band-Aiding … Housing is a big issue here in Cranston,” she said.
Luke Renchan from the RI Coalition of Wedding and Event Professionals spoke of the pandemic’s impact on his industry. He noted that Cranston is home to Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, a major venue for the kind of large social gatherings that have been wiped out by the crisis.
Renchan said his organization is working with various state agencies to develop solutions that will allow various events to go on – and workers to stay employed – while adhering with public health requirements.
“We’re trying to fight for events and event spaces to be open for people to celebrate,” he said.
Lauren Ruggieri, a registered nurse who works at Slater Hospital and the Training School, offered some of the most personal remarks during the focus group. She spoke of the strain she and her colleagues have been under, without days off and in fear of contracting – and spreading – a deadly virus still without a cure.
Ruggeiri said she tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 4 despite experiencing no symptoms. In fact, she said, “I ran nine miles the day I tested positive.” The positive test, she said, was part of the start of regular surveillance testing at her employer – and in that first week, 30 staff and 16 patients were found to be infected.
“I haven’t gotten any hazard pay … I just feel like not a lot is being done to help us,” she said.