Rhode Island is moving into the third phase of its reopening plan, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Monday, although troubling trends across the country have led officials to scale back a handful of the new allowances outlined during an earlier preview of the guidelines.
“I do feel it is safe to enter phase three. I’m confident of it,” the governor said, pointing to a “clean bill of health” for the state based on four key metrics and a recent report that found Rhode Island and Connecticut are the only states in which new cases of COVID-19 remain on the decline.
The new phase officially takes effect Tuesday, June 30, with the expiration of the governor’s prior executive order outlining phase two restrictions.
Still, the rising case counts in states across the country – and what Raimondo and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott described as a pronounced increase in the number of new cases seen in Rhode Islanders in their 20s – has resulted in some changes in the administration’s thinking.
Making another plea for continued adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing mandates, Raimondo said: “The facts are in, our approach is working, and we need to stick with it.”
Contours of phase three
Most significantly, the phase three parameters outlined Monday cap indoor social gatherings at 25 people, while outdoor gatherings have a 50-person limit. Those numbers are down from the initial plan for indoor caps of 50-75 people and an outdoor gathering limit of 75-150 people.
There will be an exception for events with licensed catering, such as weddings, with indoor and outdoor limits at 50 and 100 people, respectively. The governor said Rhode Islanders who have planned weddings based on the previewed guidance should contact the Department of Business Regulation, which will help to develop and approve plans for additional capacity if needed.
For public gatherings such as performances, festivals and religious services, indoor gatherings will be capped at 125 people or up to 66 percent of a facility’s capacity.
Outdoor events such as Fourth of July celebrations – which initial plans suggested would have no attendance cap – will be limited to 250 people, with those planning for larger crowds advised to obtain approval through the state.
Social distancing and mask-wearing requirements will remain in place for all public activity, according to the state’s guidance. Raimondo also said she will soon extend her executive order requiring cloth-based face coverings in public places – which is scheduled to expire July 4 – through Aug. 3.
Phase three guidance and allowances for businesses remain largely unchanged from the governor’s initial presentation. Indoor businesses and venues currently operating based on a percentage of their normal occupancy limits – such as restaurants – will be permitted to increase to 66 percent occupancy at one time. That also goes for seated venues, such as movie theaters.
Other establishments operating on a square-footage occupancy basis, such as retail stores, will now be permitted to allow one person inside at a time per 100 square feet of space. That rule also applies to “free-flowing venues,” such as bowling alleys and museums, which are being allowed to reopen under phase three.
Raimondo said she views the updated approach to phase three as a “fair balance to keep everybody safe and health and allow as much commerce as is safely possible.”
Regarding crowd sizes, she added: “Smaller is better, smaller is safer.”
While a number of establishments will be permitted to reopen their doors for the first time or expand the business permitted under phase two, bars will continue to face steeper restrictions.
Bars and the ‘20-something effect’
Bars have “proven to be a hot spot” for the spread of the virus in locations across the country, Raimondo said. As a result, in Rhode Island, such establishments will continue to be allowed to welcome small groups at “stable tables,” but mingling and drink service at an actual bar will remain prohibited.
“For bars, phase three is going to look the same as phase two,” she said.
Raimondo also addressed what Alexander-Scott described as “the 20-something effect” – a trend in which younger people have been seen as driving the spread of the novel coronavirus in states across the country.
Even as the state’s overall positive rate and new case counts have continued to drop, Raimondo said Rhode Island has seen “serious increases” in the number of new cases in people between the ages of 20 and 29. Alexander-Scott said in the past week, people in their 20s have made up roughly 20 percent of Rhode Island’s new COVID-19 cases.
“I want you to say to yourself, ‘What do I have to do to be part of prevention?’ … It should be a badge of honor, of Rhode Island pride, to follow the rules, to keep your neighbors and your friends and your family and your coworkers safe,” the governor said.
Specifically addressing younger Rhode Islanders, she added: “You guys aren’t following the rules. We need you to do better … We need you to own your share of responsibility and care about the rest of us.”
The governor said she is “worried” about the potential for large gatherings and new spread of the virus during the upcoming Fourth of July holiday weekend. She said her administration will work with municipal leaders and police chiefs on enforcement of social distancing requirements and the distribution of masks. Organizers of Fourth of July celebrations, including fireworks displays, are also being asked to submit social distancing plans to state officials.
Domestic travel restrictions
The move into phase three will come with a new set of domestic travel restrictions, Raimondo said – although she hopes Rhode Island’s good position relative to other parts of the country, as well as its comparatively large testing capacity, can ultimately provide a “competitive advantage” as the state seeks to reinvigorate its struggling tourism and hospitality industries.
As of June 30, anyone traveling to Rhode Island to stay from a state in which the positive rate remains greater than 5 percent will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Alternatively, travelers to Rhode Island can attest to testing negative for COVID-19 within the previous 72 hours.
Raimondo said the list of states involved – 23 as of Monday – will be updated weekly on the Department of Health’s website and based on data from Johns Hopkins University.
“This is going to be a hard thing to enforce, I’ll be the first to admit it,” the governor said, noting that officials will rely on outreach, signage at traffic hubs and the “honor system.” There are no plans to stop or monitor out-of-state vehicles at Rhode Island’s borders, as had occurred at points earlier in the crisis.
Raimondo said Rhode Island residents returning from travel to one of the states on the positive rate list will also be subject to the 14-day self-quarantine period, although they can seek a COVID-19 test through portal.ri.gov to avoid the quarantine if the results come back negative.
The governor said she views the travel restrictions as necessary to protect the state as mobility increases across a range of sectors, including business travel and tourism.
“Summer is the season for travel in Rhode Island, so we need to look at it,” she said.
Given the state’s favorable position relative to other locations, it might have an added draw to travelers and vacationers this year, Raimondo said. She added that those arriving in Rhode Island from out of state may seek a test to avoid the self-quarantine period, and she believes the state’s testing capacity – which is already greater than the daily demand – can also become an attractive feature for visitors.
“I think it could be a selling point for Rhode Island – ‘Come here and safely vacation,’” she said.
On a related note, the governor acknowledged that her previously stated goal of having the capacity to test 10,000 people per day in Rhode Island by July will not come to fruition. She added, however, that the plan is to reach that threshold – and perhaps even 15,000 daily tests – as the state prepares for a planned reopening of its school buildings on Aug. 31.
By the numbers
Monday’s date update from the Department of Health showed 16 new cases of COVID-19 identified among 1,392 more tests, a positive rate of just more than 1.1 percent.
By contrast, the U.S. saw its highest single-day increase in new cases on June 26, with almost 45,000.
The number of Rhode Islanders hospitalized, in ICUs and on ventilators due to the coronavirus also continued to decrease in Monday’s update, at 73, 15 and 14, respectively.
The update did include six new deaths, however, bringing Rhode Island’s overall toll to 946.
In keeping with the decline in the positive test rate, updated city and town cases numbers remained steady. Providence continues to have by far the most COVID-19 cases among Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns, with 5,735. It is followed by Pawtucket (1,583), Cranston (974), Central Falls (918), East Providence (740), North Providence (738), Woonsocket (654), Warwick (614) and Johnston (451).
During Monday’s briefing, Raimondo said all four of the key indicators used to determine when Rhode Island moves between phases of its reopening plan have been met.
Specifically, less than 20 percent of available hospital beds are current filled, far less than the 70 percent figure needed to proceed; new hospitalizations are under 15 per day, roughly half of the required threshold of 30; the rate of spread, or R-naught, of the virus is 0.6, nearly half the required threshold of 1.1; and new hospitalizations are declining, while the required indicator calls for their doubling at no less than 30-day intervals.
Raimondo said those four “lagging” indicators were developed at a time when Rhode Island’s testing capacity was far less, and that officials plan to incorporate a fifth indicator based on the more “leading” indicator of case counts.
Acknowledging that she has heard dueling calls for slower or more rapid reopening from many Rhode Islanders, Raimondo said: “My promise to you is to be extremely fact-based, not emotional … and to be prepared to be flexible.”
Elsewhere during Monday’s briefing:
*Raimondo said state officials plan to ramp up social distancing and mask-wearing enforcement at businesses and other venues as Rhode Island moves into a broader reopening.
“I didn’t think it was fair to be heavy handed out of the gate … Now I think it’s time to turn up the heat a little bit on people who are not complying,” she said.
More specifics on what form that will take are expected on Wednesday of this week or during next week’s briefings. But Raimondo said spot checks will be expanded and that there will be a focus on providing consumers with access to information regarding what businesses have been found in violation of social distancing and safety requirements.
Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said a “handful of businesses at this point in time that have received compliance orders” – a designation that can result in fines or license revocation. He did not offer immediately provide additional specifics, however.
*In addition to the mask-wearing order, Raimondo said she will extend a handful of other executive orders that are set to expire July 4 through Aug. 3.
Those include the mandate that insurers cover telehealth services; the emergency disaster declaration for the state; the extension of the background check window for firearms purchases from seven to 30 days; and the order that those who test positive for COVID-19 must self-quarantine for 14 days.
*Alexander-Scott also announced that the child who last week became Rhode Island’s first confirmed case of multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, has been released from the hospital and is in good condition.