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. For full audio of the governor's follow-up conference call with reporters, click here.
Gov. Gina Raimondo on Monday laid out a broad, long-term plan for slowly reopening the state, announcing a four-phase plan to a “return to a new normal” as early as Monday, May 9. The plan will take many, many months to see through, however, and she warned that that date, and the state’s plans, are largely dependent on the public doing what’s right.
“We’re going to have to be slow and methodical,” she said. But “we’re going to bring this economy back up. We’re very close to being ready.”
With new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations plateauing, Raimondo said the next two weeks will be extremely important. If residents continue to tightly adhere to stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines, the state will be able to slowly loosen restrictions starting May 9. If they don’t, and health and government officials see an uptick in the number of cases or hospitalizations, the re-opening will have to be reconsidered or scaled back. The state is currently in Phase I, which she termed “Weathering the Storm.” If things go as planned, Phase II would begin Monday, May 9.
Phase I: “Testing the waters”
If “everyone does their part” over the next two weeks, Raimondo said she will lift the stay-at-home order on May 9 so residents can resume “some social activity,” some businesses can re-open with “significant restrictions” in place, social gatherings can increase from five to 10 people, and office-based employees can head back to work in a limited fashion. She said she will update with more information in the coming days.
Also on May 9, she hopes to recommend that state parks be allowed to re-open with “strong social distancing guidelines” remaining.
She did not say how long Phase I could last, or even if it will definitely begin May 9, as nobody knows.
“I’m taking a little bit of a risk today,” she said. “I’m telling you today what you might be able to do two weeks from today. If in the next two weeks you start to violate the stay-at-home order, then we’re going to see an uptick in the number of hospitalizations. And then I’m not going to be able to lift that stay-at-home order.”
Though she acknowledged that thousands of Rhode Islanders miss their friends and family, she said residents need to use common sense when and if restrictions are eased:
“If we can go from five to 10 people in a social gathering, I need you to use some common sense,” she said. “You can see your family a little bit more, but please still limit the number of people you’re with. This is a tiny increase in our flexibility designed to allow us to be with our family and friends and get commerce going again.”
“It’s not going to be a flick of a switch,” she said. “It’s going to be slow, pinpointed, gradual. We’re going to do a little, collect the data, do a little more, collect the data. If it looks like we’re getting into trouble, I’ll pull us back. This is an adaptive recovery; we’re going to be doing a dance for the next 12 months.”
Phase II: "Navigating Our Way"
If the state weathers Phase I with no increase in hospitalizations or other problems, Phase II would begin. This includes new models for business, particularly restaurants, in which “you may see half the chairs in a restaurant removed. You will have to wash your hands, you’re going to have to continue to wear your face cloth coverings.”
The phase would also include additional child care options, and “social gatherings would also get bigger. We’ll probably go from 10 to 15. If we get through that and things look stable,” the state will enter Phase III.
Phase III: "Picking Up Speed"
It could be months off, but when Phase III comes, “then we’ll have some real confidence. We’ve learned how to live with the virus safely. We’ll know what’s working and what’s not working. We’ll be able to loosen even more restrictions on business (and allow) as many as 50 people in social gatherings.”
“Everywhere you go is still going to feel different. It goes without saying that places that rely on big crowds; conventions, sports, music events ... are going to be the very last phase.”
Keeping on track
Raimondo said every step of the process is dependent on residents adhering to the guidelines and orders in place at the time, and also on the state’s ability to have enough hospital beds, personal protection equipment for those in the healthcare field, and the ability to test large numbers of residents. Though there is no timeline for each phase, Raimondo said the state will look for a 14-day downward trend in the number of cases, or a 14-trend in stable or declining hospitalizations.
“We have our eye firmly on those hospitalizations,” she said.
The state will also need to be prepared to mitigate spread in communities, have the ability to test every symptomatic resident within 48 to 72 hours, and have enough testing capability on hand in the hardest hit communities.
As for the state’s current status? Things are moving in the right direction, she said: “Our cases are remarkably steady and that gives me great confidence.” The state’s measures “have been very hard, but it’s really working. We seem to be at a plateau. We’re not out of the woods, but I feel confident that we are at a plateau and that is a good thing.”
Still, she cautioned, the state is not yet ready for Phase II and “we have a mountain of work to do in the next couple of weeks (and) we have to be ready at every stage. The key is flexibility.”
“We all have to work together,” added Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“If folks start loosening up now, that can result in changes in the numbers ... and would subsequently result in pushing back the initiation of Phase II. If we all hold on, then we can take those steps.”
Also on Monday, Alexander-Scott reported seven new fatalities. All of the deceased lived in “congregate living or congregate care settings,” and included one resident in their 50s, one in their 60s, one in their 70s, one in their 80s and three in their 90s.
There have been 269 new cases confirmed since Sunday, with 266 Rhode Islanders hospitalized, 81 in intensive care units and 56 on ventilators.
On Friday, a resident at the Rhode Island Veterans’ Home in Bristol tested positive for the virus, and Alexander-Scott said additional testing over the weekend confirmed 14 positives — 12 patients and two staff members.
At the veterans’ home and other congregate institutions, she said, “we are handling any cluster of cases extremely aggressively. We know that we are dealing with (a) physically fragile population. We have been working ... to get almost all residents and staff tested; we still have to do seven or eight tests.”
Of the 14 residents and staff members who tested positive, she said, “none are displaying any symptoms.” But “because we are taking the aggressive (approach), it is allowing us to identify people who do not have symptoms but are positive for this illness.
This way, she said. “we can make adjustments aggressively and quickly.”
During a question-and-answer period, the governor was asked what guidance she is giving to state colleges and universities about how to operate in the fall.
She said at some point they will require colleges to submit plans on how they plan to get back to work in some modified fashion. The governor last week asked all of the state’s hospitals to prepare re-opening plans, and she said she will likely require colleges and universities to do the same:
“We’re in constant contact with higher education,” she said. “We’re going to work with them. It would like them to reopen; the question is exactly how? Will it be a combination of distance learning (and in-person learning)? It’s a goal to work for; it’s important to give universities some flexibility, (as) every student population is different.
On a similar vein, she was asked what residents can expect for church services going forward.
“Churches will be (another) category,” she said. “We’re very likely to ask churches to show us your plan.”
However, “I cannot foresee a scenario in which we’ll be able to go to church in Phase I, at least not in a way that you think of.”
More likely, she said, there could be modified services at the end of Phase I or beginning of Phase II, “with a whole lot more social distancing.”
“My goal would be, in the month of May, to allow church and religious gatherings in some form or fashion.
Another question referred to President Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that Americans consider ingesting bleach and/or disinfectants to kill the virus. When asked what she thought of that idea, Raimondo went back to science, which she said has guided the state’s response from the beginning of the crisis:
“I also saw that and was shocked that the president suggested we ingest bleach,” she said. “I would strongly advise you to not do that.”
“We’re in touch with the experts at Johns Hopkins, the Centers for Disease Control, Brown University, LifeSpan. At no time have I gone against their guidance - I listen to them. I can’t speak to what’s happening in Washington."