PROVIDENCE - Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo ordered all restaurants, bars, and cafes to close their dine-in sections until at least March 30, the latest restriction designed to curb an outbreak of coronavirus in the state.
Raimondo said the businesses can continue to offer delivery service and takeout, but she stressed that the closures are designed to prevent further community spread of the contagious virus.
“This is a serious step because we are confronting a serious crisis,” Raimondo said at a morning news conference.
Rhode Island now has 21 confirmed cases of the disease among residents -- up one from the weekend. The latest case involves a woman in her 40s who is now isolated in a local hospital, according to the state Department of Health.
Raimondo said Rhode Island is also restricting all public gatherings to no more than 25 people, similar to Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza took an additional step Monday by ordering the Providence Place mall closed until further notice. Also, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin ordered all Masses to be suspended beginning Tuesday.
“The decision to suspend Masses in the Diocese of Providence is the most painful decision I’ve had to make in my 27 years as a bishop,” Tobin wrote on Twitter. “I cannot imagine asking our people to go without Mass and Holy Communion, especially as Easter approaches. But, it has to be done.”
The bishop said that weddings and funerals will still be held, but without a full Mass and with only “necessary participants” who take the precautions recommended by health officials regarding social distancing, hand-shaking, etc. He also asked that churches stay open during the day for personal prayer, devotions, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and confession.
Raimondo said the Department and Health and the Providence police will help to enforce the new limits.
The governor said that while she driving around on Sunday, she saw 50 or 60 boys playing football together in a field. “Shut that down,” she said.
She said also drove by the Providence Place mall and saw too many people there.
“Shut it down,” Raimondo said. “It’s not a joke. It’s about keeping yourselves alive and helping us to make sure our health-care system isn’t overwhelmed.”
Raimondo recommended that mayors in other cities and towns close malls within their borders.
The governor said she realizes her order will hurt the state’s restaurants and bars.
“Listen, I know this is brutal," Raimondo said. "Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. For many of you pub owners, it’s the biggest day of the year. We will figure out a way to make it up to you. You are doing the right thing. You’re heroic in this effort, and it is going to keep Rhode Islanders safe.”
Some 2,300 people are now under quarantine in Rhode Island, including about 1,700 people from Cranston High School West. Coronavirus tests are pending for 149 people, and tests have come back negative for 308 people, according to the latest figures from the Department of Health.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, said state health officials are now assuming that Rhode Island has “community spread" of coronavirus because they can’t identify the source of all the cases, including the latest case involving a woman in her 40s who is hospitalized but in stable condition.
“We have started to see cases where we have not been able to immediately identify the source of illness, so to err on the side of caution and stay two steps ahead of this, we are saying that Rhode Island has community spread," Alexander-Scott said.
That is all the more reason to heed the messages from state officials, she said.
“Understand that crowds are what the virus uses to spread illness," Alexander-Scott said. “We need everyone to stay home and only go out for essential needs. Please.”
Raimondo said unemployment insurance claims and temporary disability insurance claims are “starting to skyrocket,” as expected.
She said Rhode Island is one of the first states to ask the federal Small Business Administration to declare an “economic injury disaster." Such a declaration would help clear the way for small businesses to receive low-interest to “pay fixed operating costs through this period, until we can return to some sense of normalcy,” she said.
Raimondo emphasized that residents should go online to apply for unemployment insurance through the state Department of Labor and Training.
Many educators are eager to know whether schools will remain closed after this week, the governor said.
“I would ask you to just hang on a day or two,” she said. “We know what’s happening this week: There is no school in the State of Rhode Island, and we’ve asked teachers, principals, and superintendents to begin finalize distance learning plans. I know you are working on them and say thank you.”
Providence Mayor Elorza said he was ordering the Providence Place mall to close beginning on Tuesday and until further notice.
“We want to eliminate the highest risk areas within our state, and we will want everyone to take this seriously,” he said. “This week, as people are out of school, we don’t want them to congregate in public spaces and create the circumstances that are ripe for transmission.”
Also, the mayor said he said he is ordering the police department to ramp up enforcement of the restrictions on eating and drinking at restaurants and bars.
Elorza said that as more tests become accessible, the state and the country are seeing the full extent of the coronavirus outbreak, and he said the period of “exponential spread” or “exponential growth” is likely to last for weeks to come.
“Based on the experience of other counties, we know this time typically takes, on the shorter end, five to six weeks, and on the longer end, eight weeks and counting,” Elorza said. “The extent of the length of that exponential growth is entirely dependent on the social actions and the steps that we take to limit social interactions and, hence, the spread of this virus.”
Dale J. Venturini, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, attended the morning news conference. “It is a hard blow to the industry,” she said afterward. “However, we are going to figure it out.”
She said the hospitality industry has a “culture of community” and business owners are already focused on ways to help others, such as getting left-over food to those who need it.
While Monday’s action “might seem like an extreme measure,” Venturini said states such as Massachusetts, Washington, and Ohio have closed restaurants. “We all need to work together in this unprecedented time," she said. “A closure now will enable all of us to safely get back to work and back to normal sooner rather than later.”