NEWS

Pandemic, campaign shaped year in Cranston

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 12/30/20

By DANIEL KITTREDGE In a year filled with dramatic moments, the date of Friday, March 13 will likely loom large in the memory of Cranstonians and others across Rhode Island. On that day, news broke that a Cranston High School West student had tested

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NEWS

Pandemic, campaign shaped year in Cranston

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In a year filled with dramatic moments, the date of Friday, March 13 will likely loom large in the memory of Cranstonians and others across Rhode Island.

On that day, news broke that a Cranston High School West student had tested positive for COVID-19. It was one of nine positive cases announced by the Department of Health that day, bringing the state’s overall count at that point to 14.

While the pandemic had already made its presence felt in Rhode Island, starting with the state’s first confirmed case on March 1, the first identified Cranston case stands as a clear turning point – a moment at which the seriousness of the crisis, and the scope of its potential reach, became far more real for many in the community.

The days and weeks that followed foreshadowed what awaited Rhode Islanders for the rest of 2020.

A two-week quarantine was put in place for the entire 1,700-member West community, and districts across the state moved to distance learning, ultimately for the remainder of the school year. Herald contributor Jen Cowart, whose family is part of the West community, chronicled her experience in a series titled “Inside the quarantine.”

Mayor Allan Fung issued an emergency declaration for Cranston that remains in effect, and municipal offices closed or sharply reduced in-person operations.

As the virus continued to spread, state and local leaders responded with new restrictions on business activity, social gatherings and many other aspects of day-to-day life. State leaders raced to prepare field hospitals, including a facility in the former Citizens Bank building on Sockanosset Cross Road, ahead of a potential surge in hospitalized patients.

With time, the curve was flattened, and the worst-case scenario never materialized in that initial wave. As spring wore on and summer arrived, restrictions were gradually eased. Life, including a spirited election campaign, went on.

But as fall arrived, the coronavirus returned with new ferocity. Its spread drove case counts, hospitalizations and deaths to levels not seen since the spring peak, and in some cases set new grim milestones. As of Monday, more than 85,602 Rhode Islanders had tested positive for COVID-19 at some point – and a report in the Providence Journal found that according to experts, the true number of infections could be more than twice that figure.

A three-week “pause” appears to have improved Rhode Island’s standing of late, but Cranston students, for a time, have again moved to distance leaning – and that local field hospital site, one officials hoped would never be used, has accepted its first patients.

The pandemic has unquestionably been the top story of 2020, but there have been many other important developments in Cranston during the last 12 months.

The following is a look back at some of those stories, loosely ranked but in no particular order and meant to provide a broad glance rather than a comprehensive overview.

CITY RESPONDS TO COVID

The first inklings of the pandemic began weeks before March 13, as observers in Rhode Island joined the rest of the world in warily watching the situation unfolding in China and other parts of the world.

On March 1, with the first confirmed case in Rhode Island, the level of anxiety increased, although public health officials and civic leaders cautioned against overreaction.

“Precautions, not panic, urged as virus reaches RI,” reads the Herald’s lead headline from March 5. The story quotes Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott as saying the arrival of the virus in Rhode Island had been expected, and that “widespread community transition” had not yet been observed locally – meaning the “general risk for Rhode Islanders is still low.”

Mayor Fung told the Herald at the time: “The one message that I want to get out – don’t panic. Just take the same precautions that everyone should … Those simple precautions can go a long way.”

By March 19, the Herald’s top headline carried more urgency: “Striving to stay ‘a step ahead’: Sweeping new actions taken as COVID-19 cases rise to 23 in RI.” By that point, Gov. Gina Raimondo had declared a state of emergency.

Fung followed suit in Cranston, and his emergency declaration – initially valid for seven days – was soon continued for the duration of the state’s order by a vote of the City Council. That vote, in March, occurred during the last in-person gathering the body has held this year, aside from an August outdoor site visit with the Planning Commission at Mulligan’s Island.

In the months that followed, Fung has issued 14 supplemental emergency orders related to the crisis, many mirroring state action. Those have related to a range of issues, from a spending freeze to the status of recreational facilities.

“Everything’s changing day by day. It’s scary times, challenging times … We’re doing the best we can to be a source of information to our local businesses, local residents,” the mayor told the Herald for a March 19 story.

During those early weeks, Fung repeatedly expressed frustration over lack of compliance with quarantine and social distancing requirements.

He garnered wide attention for a pair of social media videos he recorded with messages aimed at scofflaws – particularly one in which he sought to “channel my inner Italian mayor,” splicing in news clips of officials in Italy addressing their constituents with colorful messages like: “I hear some want to host a party … We’ll send armed police, and we’ll be sending them with flamethrowers.”

In April, state officials chose the former Citizens Bank facility – vacated when the bank opened its new corporate campus in Johnston – as the site of one of three field hospitals. A lease agreement was reached with Carpionato Group, and Care New England was chosen to oversee the location.

Officials have provided the Herald and other media outlets with a look inside the facility on a few occasions over the past several months. It was not until recently that the facility received its first patients – and just in the past few days, it garnered national attention through a story in the Washington Post.

In terms of case counts, a review of the Department of Health’s online data portal shows Cranston’s experience with the pandemic has closely tracked with Rhode Island as a whole. For the week of Dec. 13-19, Cranston had 551 confirmed COVID cases per 100,000 residents, slightly outpacing the state’s 529 cases per 100,000. Overall, the city’s case count stood at 7,177 as of earlier this week.

Sixty-eight Cranstonians have died due to COVID-19, according to the health department’s most recent data at the Herald’s press time, while 442 have been hospitalized at some point during the crisis.

HOPKINS WINS MAYORAL RACE; GOP HOLDS COUNCIL

The campaign to succeed Fung as mayor had been ongoing behind the scenes for months, but it began in earnest just as the pandemic arrived locally.

After Republican City Council President Michael Farina entered the field in January, several others – Republican Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, Democratic Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos and Democratic former councilwoman Maria Bucci – kick off their own bids between March and early June. Another candidate, comedian Adam Carbone, mounted an unconventional bid on the Democratic side.

The GOP race between Hopkins and Farina grew contentious, with the councilmen trading attacks over campaign slogans, support from attorneys and other issues.

Fung, who is leaving office after 12 years due to term limits, endorsed Hopkins as his chosen successor, and Hopkins reciprocated in his embrace of the outgoing mayor’s record. Farina, who is finishing his fourth term on the council, touted his blend of experience in both business and government.

The Democratic contest, by contrast, remained relatively quiet. Bucci, backed by strong fundraising, made change a central theme of her candidacy. Stycos, who is departing the council due to term limits, pointed to his 20-year record as an elected official.

Carbone’s pitch centered on outlandish promises – bringing the singer Adele to perform in Garden City, for example – and provided one of the campaign’s enduring visuals by sporting a hot dog costume during a primary debate in August.

In the end, Hopkins’s candidacy clearly resonated with Republican primary voters as he scored a nearly 3-1 victory on Sept. 8. The outcome of the race was not expected to be known until later that week, given the high number of mail and emergency ballots, but Farina conceded on election night.

It took longer to learn the winner on the Democratic side, but once the mail and emergency ballots were tallied, Bucci narrowly bested Stycos by a roughly 49-47 percent margin.

The general election contest between Hopkins and Bucci was largely quiet, with each focusing on positive messaging and a friendly approach. That dynamic was highlighted through a Boston Globe story and in a front-page Herald photo of the two campaigning outside City Hall during the early voting period.

On the night of Nov. 3, Hopkins – like many other Republican candidates – held a larged advantage among voters who cast in-person ballots on Election Day. Bucci, likewise, showed strongly in the mail balloting. Issues with the tabulation of emergency ballots, however, delayed the final results until the next day.

Hopkins had all but declared victory during an election night event at the St. Mary’s Feast Society. Recounting the loss of his wife roughly a year early and the difficult days that followed, he told supporters: “I’ve reached the top.”

Hopkins will take office with a Republican majority on the City Council. While Democratic candidate Jessica Marino topped the citywide field, Republicans Robert Ferri and Nicole Renzulli took the second and third seats in the six-person contest. That, combined with a Ward 6 win for Republican Matthew Reilly, was enough for the GOP to maintain its 5-4 edge on the council.

In Ward 2, Democrat Aniece Germain made history as the first black woman, and the first Haitian American, to be elected to the City Council. She had been appointed to the seat earlier this year following the resignation of Paul McAuley.

Four incumbents – Democrats Lammis Vargas in Ward 1 and John Donegan in Ward 3, and Republicans Ed Brady in Ward 4 and Chris Paplauskas in Ward 5 – were reelected to the council without opposition.

FENTON-FUNG TOPPLES SPEAKER

Cranston’s mayoral race was among the most closely watched contests of the 2020 cycle in Rhode Island.

At the top of that list? Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung’s challenge – ultimately successful – to Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in District 15.

Fenton-Fung, the mayor’s wife, had been floated as a possible contender to succeed her husband in City Hall during the early days of the election cycle. In the end, she chose to challenge Mattiello for the Western Cranston legislative seat.

Fenton-Fung went on the offensive early, using colorful social media videos and mailers to highlight controversies that have surrounded the speaker. Mattiello steered clear of those attacks early in the campaign, focusing instead on his record at the State House – and particularly his successful effort to implement a phase-out of the car tax.

Later in the race, however, the speaker criticized Fenton-Fung, questioning her ability to effectively serve the district and the city as a member of the minority caucus in the House.

In the end, Fenton-Fung’s win was decisive – a margin of nearly 60-40 percent. The Associated Press, in fact, called the race less than an hour after polls closed, although the speaker did not concede until the next day.

This year’s campaign produced another House upset in Cranston, as Democrat Brandon Potter defeated incumbent Christopher Millea in District 16 in the September primary. He went on to defeat Republican Maryann Lancia in the November election.

SCHOOL BOND, CHARTER AMENDMENTS APPROVED

November’s election also brought a major victory for Cranston Public Schools, as voters overwhelmingly backed a $147 million bond question to fund five school building improvement projects in the coming years.

The bond is meant to finance the continued modernization of Eden Park Elementary School, the modernization and expansion of Garden City Elementary School, the replacement of Gladstone Elementary School, and renovations at both Park View Middle School and Cranston High School West. The Garden City project is first on the district’s agenda, and work is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2021.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a number of other local bond questions, as well as four amendments to the city’s charter. Those include a new minimum balance for the so-called “rainy day” fund; a 3-percent local cap on annual increases to the property tax levy; expanded veto authority for the mayor; and new language aimed at prohibiting gerrymandering in the drawing of local ward maps.

COSTCO PLAN STIRS DEBATE

A Massachusetts developer’s plan to bring a Costco wholesale club to the property that currently houses Mulligan’s Island generated months of debate – and strong opposition from a group of neighbors – before being withdrawn this month.

Coastal Partners LLC sought a zoning change for the planned development, known as Cranston Crossing. As proposed, it was to include the Costco along with future restaurant and retail space.

The plan was introduced over the summer, and it became the focus of two public gatherings – first a neighborhood session hosted by Cranston Neighbors for Smart Development, and then a joint site visit by the City Council and Planning Commission. During those early weeks, a number of elected officials and candidates announced their opposition to Cranston Crossing as initially proposed.

A scheduled September start to public hearings on the zoning change was twice delayed, and during that time the developer removed a proposed single-family residential development that had been sought for a portion of the property. The revised plan called for those roughly 18 acres to instead be given to the city for open space and recreational use.

The hearings began Dec. 1 before the Planning Commission, the first of several sessions – all conducted via Zoom – that ran as many as five hours. On Dec. 8, the commission issued a negative recommendation. Then, before the City Council’s planned Dec. 17 deliberations and vote on the zoning change, the applicant withdrew the proposal.

For now, the future of the Mulligan’s Island site remains unclear. Its owners have said the existing operation is not sustainable.

POLICE PRESENCE

The past 12 months have spurred renewed national debate over racial justice and the role of police in communities, and Cranston Police were at the forefront of events locally during a pair of high-profile episodes.

In early June, peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota gave way to a night of violence and looting in Providence. Rumors subsequently circulated on social media that Cranston’s Garden City Center and the Warwick Mall might become new targets.

That resulted in an extraordinary scene as members of the National Guard and various local law enforcement agencies stepped up their presence at both shopping centers. A curfew was also imposed for Cranston and Warwick. In the end, what had played out in Providence did not occur in either suburban city.

Then, over the course of several nights in October, Cranston Police turned out in force at the intersection of Park and Elmwood avenues as protesters neared the city line. Those protests were spurred by a moped crash just over the Providence line that left 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves – who had been pursued by police, as captured in a widely seen cell phone video – in a coma.

The scene was most highly charged on the night of Oct. 21, as Cranston Police sought to block a group of ATVs, dirt bikes and other vehicles from entering the city. That scene included a skirmish between police and protesters, resulting in two arrests on the part of Cranston Police.

In an unrelated matter, Cranston Police in October announced an arrest in the city’s sole murder of 2020 – a September shooting death of a 24-year-old Providence man on Harris Avenue, off Cranston Street. Jose Herpin, 23, was charged in the killing, which police said stemmed from an altercation at a birthday party.

OTHER TOP STORIES

* In January, the City Council approved – and Mayor Fung signed – amendments to the city’s ordinances governing solar energy developments. The updated rules were intended to bar commercial-scale projects in residential zones.

* In early February, it was announced that Garden City Center had been sold to WS Development, a Massachusetts-based company. The sale price was $181 million.

* Typical graduation ceremonies at the city’s high schools were upended by the pandemic, but virtual ceremonies were created to honor this year’s seniors. Additionally, at both Cranston East and Cranston West, a new tradition – senior motorcades – was started.

* The annual Gaspee Days celebration in Pawtuxet was forced to cancel its regular public events this year due to the pandemic, while St. Mary’s Feast was significantly scaled back.

* In October, the city’s public library system received the second annual Jerry Kline Community Impact Prize from the Gerald M. Kline Family Foundation and Library Journal. The prize carries a $250,000 award.

pandemic, campaign

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