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R.I. governor closes public schools for at least a week

Nine new cases of the coronavirus have been found, bringing the total to 14

R.I. Governor Gina Raimondo announced public school closings and a ban on nursing home visits at a press conference on March 13, 2020.
R.I. Governor Gina Raimondo announced public school closings and a ban on nursing home visits at a press conference on March 13, 2020.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Friday ordered all public schools in Rhode Island to close for one week starting Monday and banned all nursing home visitors as the number of Rhode Islanders with the coronavirus has nearly tripled, from five to 14.

The nine new cases include three children and a resident of a nursing home. Eight of those are recovering at home; the nursing home resident is in isolation there. Raimondo did not say whether the children had been to school, or what schools they attended.

Those infections, she said, stemmed from at least four unrelated trips -- to Europe, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Massachusetts -- as well as contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

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Turns out that “someone” was Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert, the player who mocked concerns about the virus earlier this week by deliberately touching reporters’ recorders and microphones at a press conference, as well as some of his teammates and their possessions in the locker room. Two days later, he tested positive for the coronavirus, and a teammate tested positive the following day.

The Rhode Island victim is one of the children now infected, a Westerly second grader who got an autograph from Gobert when the Jazz played the Celtics at TD Garden in Boston last week, according to Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey.

There is no evidence that the child caught the virus from Gobert, but he apparently had no other exposure that health officials can find. Now all 270 students and 40 staff members at the boy’s school, Springbook Elementary, are in quarantine for the next two weeks.

Another Westerly boy tested positive for coronavirus, Lacey said, after returning from a trip to the Bahamas. That boy attends a preschool in Mystic, Connecticut, whose student body and staff is now also in quarantine.

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With the increase in cases, and watching how the virus is spreading rapidly in other states, Raimondo told public school officials to move up April vacation to next week, banned all visitors from nursing homes, and advised people, especially those over 60, to avoid large gatherings. She also told Rhode Islanders to “stay local, stay here,” and ordered anyone returning from a trip abroad to self-quarantine for two weeks.

“What we do right now is going to determine our collective future for the next weeks and months,” Raimondo said. “We know right now this is going to get worse before it gets better. And I don’t want to sugarcoat that.”

Several times during the news conference, the governor talked about how emotions are raw.

“I know tensions are rising. I feel it. We all feel it. The tone and tenor of this crisis has changed, even in the past few hours,” Raimondo said. “I would say it’s an opportunity for us to take a collective deep breath.”

She emphasized that health officials were not surprised by the spread of the illness in Rhode Island. She and Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott are concerned about a rapid increase in cases that could overwhelm area hospitals, and they urged residents to take whatever precautions they could to help contain the virus.

“Literally every day, every half a day, matters," Raimondo said. "Time is not our friend in this regard, which is why we have moved to shut things down as fast as possible.”

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About 500 Rhode Islanders are under quarantine. Tests on 142 residents have come back negative; results are pending for another 29 people, according to the health department.

The turnaround on school closures came just days after Raimondo said she wasn’t considering closing schools. Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green had asked school districts to provide contingency plans by March 19.

Some schools in Massachusetts have closed their doors. Six states -- Oregon, Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, and New Mexico -- are closing their schools next week. Locally, Julie Nora, director of International Charter School in Pawtucket, publicly called Thursday for schools to close, saying she was concerned about the lack of resources for school nurses and the potential for the virus to spread among children.

The public school closings will allow districts to clean their facilities and develop a comprehensive virtual learning program in case schools remain closed. The state is not ordering private schools to close, but Alexander-Scott said she is encouraging all schools to follow suit.

“I want to emphasize that we are taking this a day at a time, and a week at a time,” Raimondo said.

Raimondo asked that childcare centers remain open for the time being. Those facilities serve fewer children than schools do, she said, and are more controlled settings.

Lacey, the Westerly police chief, said each development in the unfolding coronavirus saga is presenting new challenges. For example, one of the teachers at Springbrook Elementary is married to a Westerly police officer. She is staying quarantined, while her husband remains working.

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“We have to have a police department,” Lacey said. “But what happens if they all get sick?”

They were adjusting with each day's news, Lacey said. "People react as we react," the chief said in a phone interview. "If we remain calm, people will remain calm."

Raimondo also announced that she is banning all visits to nursing homes because people over 60 and those with pre-existing health conditions are especially vulnerable to the virus.

“I understand that it’s a difficult policy,” she said. “We are hearing from family members who want to visit mom or dad in the nursing home.”

But, Raimondo said, “You are forbidden from visiting these nursing homes, period, until further notice.”

Raimondo said she was signing an executive order that anyone returning from international travel must self-quarantine for two weeks upon return to Rhode Island. She said there would be announcements at T.F. Green Airport about the new order.

Alexander-Scott emphasized that people should avoid large gatherings and any non-essential crowds. “Our aggressive steps today are in lieu of the potential of community spread in Rhode Island,” said Alexander-Scott. “We want to act now in advance of community spread.”

Raimondo was asked if the state is keeping the Twin River casino open simply because it provides so much revenue to state government.

Twin River is not holding concerts, she said. “And we are in constant contact with them to make sure that they are in a situation where they can keep people far enough apart. But we haven’t ruled out yet closing down.”

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After the governor’s announcement, Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell announced that he was canceling the calendar activity for all state courts next week, including jury trials. The courts will remain open for emergency matters, including but not limited to domestic violence petitions, temporary restraining orders, bail, and arraignments for serious crimes.

Beyond that, Suttell said the Judiciary is considering options for limited operations after March 20. This decision applies to the Supreme Court, Superior Court, Family Court, District Court, Workers’ Compensation Court, and Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal. Court staff are to report to work as usual.

The judiciary said it is taking these steps to reduce the number of people in its courthouses to mitigate the potential for spreading the virus.

The courts will continue to explore cases that could be heard remotely, and next week will reassess options for limited court operations after March 20.

“Given the amount of people who typically enter our courthouses each day, it is vital that we do what we can to minimize that number while still fulfilling our constitutional duty and statutory responsibility to provide the public with access to justice,” said Chief Justice Suttell. “Our courts will continue our mission of providing access and dispensing justice during this public health emergency to the extent that the matters coming before the courts are essential.”

The Judiciary has scheduled an average of 2,300 cases every day statewide over the past month. At the Judiciary’s three busiest courthouses – Garrahy Judicial Complex, Licht Judicial Complex, and the Traffic Tribunal – a total of nearly 7,000 people pass through security at the entrances each day.

Meanwhile, General Assembly leaders canceled all of next week’s House and Senate sessions and committee hearings.

“Taking these early and prudent measures will hopefully enable us to get back to the people’s business as soon as possible,” House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio said in a joint statement. “We will closely monitor the developing situation and determine future steps as warranted. We will use this time to ensure that the Department of Administration thoroughly cleans the entire State House.”

Providence City Hall will be closed until at least March 30, according to Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s office.

The state Division of Motor Vehicles announced it will temporarily close its part-time branch in Warren Town Hall in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Full-time service will continue at DMV offices in Cranston, Middletown, Wakefield, and Woonsocket, as well at its road test center in Providence.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv. Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan. Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.