Editor's note: This story appears on our websites as part of a partnership between Beacon Communications and East Bay Newspapers to share coverage of the COVID-19 crisis.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo announced during her daily briefing Wednesday afternoon that the state will begin allowing organized church-based worship starting the weekend of Saturday, May 30.
However, she warned, there will be significant restrictions. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship will be limited to 25 percent of their capacity, “and that’s a maximum.”
“If you go above 25 percent too soon, too many people will get sick and we’ll have to pull back,” she said.
Other restrictions include the wearing of masks, keeping at least six feet apart from other church-goers, no physical contact, and others. She said that while there will be no cup allowed, communion will be served “with significant restrictions.”
The re-opening applies not just to regular church services, but all others, including funerals and weddings, that are normally held in churches, as well.
During the question-and-answer portion of the briefing, Raimondo was asked to compare Rhode Island with Massachusetts, which will allow churches to open at 40 percent capacity. Is Rhode Island being too conservative?
“It’s really a judgement call,” she said. “There’s no right answer. I respect (Massachusetts) Gov. Baker .... but I came to the decision through a lot of conversations with faith-based leaders.”
In fact, she said, 25 percent capacity can also be a large number. At some of the state’s larger cathedrals, which can hold as many as 1,000 people, “that’s a couple hundred people. That’s a lot of people,” the governor said.
Though this weekend’s planned opening of all state parks and on Monday, the opening of two beaches are a big step, she said, they are largely symbolic. At the beaches — East Matunuck and Scarborough state beaches — facilities will be sparse. Residents need to continue to practice safe social distance measures, and congregate in groups of no more than five, she said.
“We felt it was important to have some opening of beaches as a symbol,” she said. “But please don’t congregate. Don’t stay long. There will be very limited parking, no showers, concessions, bathrooms (and) no lifeguards.”
The same holds true at another Memorial Day tradition — backyard barbecues.
“The limit on social gatherings is five,” she said. “This is going to be hard (but) keep the social gatherings to a limit. If you don’t do that, then in two or three weeks or we’re going to see a problem. We have tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders out of work right now. I’ve got to get them back to work. The ability (to do that) depends on us doing the right thing, which means keeping social gatherings to a limit of five, even on a holiday weekend.”
If all goes as planned and the numbers don’t rise beyond what officials expect, Raimondo said she hopes to begin Phase II of the state’s re-opening plan at the beginning of June.
Crush Covid app
The state’s unveiling Tuesday of the “Crush Covid” contact tracing cell phone app, which when installed allows the state to track where subscribers have been, has drawn criticism from some fronts, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). But during her portion of the briefing, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said the app will only allow the state to track locations of those who agree to that monitoring.
“This technology is not about locating people in real time,” she said. “It’s about logging ... if you decide to provide that information to us.”
“Everyone has the opportunity to determine how they want that data to be handled,” she added. “We understand people have privacy concerns (but) the only information that is shared with us is that information that you chose to share ... to keep you and the people around you healthy and safe.”
In its first day, the Crush Covid app was download approximately 10,000 times.
Alexander-Scott said that research and cases continue to bear out the trend that the rates of infection and hospitalization are highest among those of Latino and African American descent. Numbers continue to bear that out, and “this race and ethnicity data is key to our response,” she said.
Overall, 26 percent of Central Falls residents tested, 22 percent of Providence residents tested, 18 percent of North Providence residents tested, and 17 percent of Pawtucket and Woonsocket residents tested, have tested positive for the virus.
As of Wednesday, there are six new deaths reported, bringing the state’s death total to 538; there have been 209 new cases since Tuesday, brining the state’s total to 13,356; there have been 120,528 tests taken statewide since the start of the crisis, with 3,086 tests administered Tuesday; and of the positives, 257 patients are currently hospitalized. Of those, 58 residents are in the Intensive Care Unit and 45 patients are currently on ventilators.
“We continue to see a plateau,” the governor said. “We’re not on that solid decline but we’re in a very stable place now and that has continued for several weeks.”