A week after lowering Rhode Island’s social gathering limit from 15 to 10 people, Gov. Gina Raimondo on Nov. 5 announced seven additional restrictions – including a two-week stay-at-home advisory during overnight hours and earlier closing times for bars, restaurants and other establishments – that she says provide a targeted alternative to a more wholesale shutdown in light of the continued surge of coronavirus cases in the state.
“We have to take our medicine. We can take our medicine now, or we can take our medicine later,” she said, adding: “If we wait, if we try to outrun the virus, we’re going to take the medicine later and it’s going to be much stronger medicine … we have to really rein it in right now.”
The stay-at-home measure, which took effect Sunday with the other new restrictions, relates to the hours of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weeknights and 10:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekend nights.
The new closure time rules apply to drinking and culinary businesses as well as gyms, recreational facilities and “personal services.” Those businesses will be required to close at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 p.m. on weekends, with an exception for take-out and drive-thru service at restaurants.
These steps, Raimondo said, were based on conversations with other governors in the region about an “aligned approach” – along with what she and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott called the continued finding, based on COVID-19 data and case investigations, that rising case counts are being driven primarily by “spread in the informal settings.”
“The glaring trend remains to be the same – too much mixing going on,” the health director said, adding: “Too many people are part of too many groups, especially in informal settings.”
Of the stay-at-home component of the announcement, the governor said: “It’s an advisory … We’re not going to be pulling cars over. We’re not going to be having a heavy-handed approach … not at this stage, hopefully never.”
In terms of the 10 and 10:30 p.m. closure times, Raimondo said that “the later the night goes on, the more people put their guard down” in terms of distancing and mask wearing – and that limiting activity later in the night is meant to serve as a safeguard.
Raimondo said to help compensate bars and restaurants for the earlier closure times, grants of between $2,000 and $10,000 will be made available through the state’s Division of Taxation. More information regarding the application process was released Monday.
“We’re going to make this very simple, very easy and very quick,” she said.
The other new measures Raimondo announced Nov. 5 include a capacity limit of 50 percent, with a maximum of 125 people, for indoor venues and 66 percent, with a maximum of 150 people, for outdoor venues; limits of 25 and 50 people at indoor and outdoor catered events, respectively, with exemptions for previously scheduled weddings; a limit of one customer at a time per 150 square feet in big box stores, defined as retailers with more than 30,000 square feet; a request that businesses “cancel any non-essential work-related travel”; and a new call for mask wearing in any settings in which people are around non-regular contacts, including outdoors and at the gym.
An update was also provided on youth sports, which saw a ban on spectators for the last week, and indoor sports facilities.
Raimondo said starting Nov. 9, a maximum of two spectators for every athlete under the age of 18 will be allowed at sporting events. Face coverings will be required for spectators and athletes.
“I know that won’t be popular, but I think that’s the only way we can allow competitive sports to continue indoors while keeping people safe,” she said.
Indoor facilities will also be allowed to reopen with new distancing, capacity and cleaning protocols, Raimondo said, and facilities are being ask to take a “rigorous” approach to collecting contact information from visitors for contact tracing purposes.
Additionally, the governor presented a new three-tier classification for various sports – ranging from low to high risk – that carries certain restrictions and will be in place until the year’s end. In some cases, interstate travel for competitions will not be allowed. She said she expects Massachusetts and Connecticut to issue similar guidance soon.
“This isn’t going to last forever,” she said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We just need to try to get through the next couple of months.”
Raimondo also said she is “going to be taking a very serious look at Thanksgiving restrictions,” citing past spikes in cases seen after holidays and the experience of Canada, which has seen its COVID-19 case counts rise in the weeks after its Oct. 12 celebration.
“If you see a train coming down the tracks, you can’t just sit there and do nothing,” she said.
Raimondo said Rhode Islanders should expect a phone alert around noon on Sunday regarding the new restrictions.
The latest COVID-19 data update from the Department of Health is “still not a good news story,” Raimondo said.
According to Tuesday’s update, a record 701 new cases have been identified among 9,379 additional tests, representing a percent positive rate of 7.5 percent.
Four more Rhode Islanders have died in connection with the coronavirus, bringing the overall number of lives lost to 1,237 since the onset of the pandemic.
As of Tuesday, 218 Rhode Islanders were hospitalized as a result of COVID-19 – a number that Alexander-Scott last week said had been in the mid-60s in early September.
“Our hospital capacity is still in a good place,” the health director said, although she added: “We can’t ignore the trends we are seeing.”
Alexander-Scott also said the average number of close contacts associated with each positive case has risen from three in June to five as of last week. That, she said, underscores the concerns about the spread of the virus through informal social settings.
Week-to-week metrics also underscore the cause for alarm. Data released Tuesday show the state’s positive rate for last week was 3.9 percent, up from 3.3 percent the week prior. The number of new hospital admissions rose from 163 to 228 over the same period of time, while the number of new cases per 100,000 residents rose from 279 to 362.