PROVIDENCE -- As the number of Rhode Islanders with coronavirus nearly quadrupled in a week, Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced Friday that she was activating the National Guard to help respond to the pandemic.
Overnight, 10 more Rhode Islanders tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, bringing the new state total to 54 cases. Last Friday, there were just 14 cases in Rhode Island.
The increase wasn’t surprising, Raimondo and Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said during a press conference at the State House Friday. Community spread of coronavirus was confirmed in Rhode Island this past week, and the number of infected residents is expected to grow as testing expands.
The 10 new cases range in age from a child to someone in their 70s, and include four females and six males, said Alexander-Scott. Health officials are still determining how the residents were infected, but they know that one person traveled to New Jersey and another visited Estonia. All are recovering at home, Alexander-Scott said.
On Friday afternoon, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza announced that the city is prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people and ordering a range of businesses closed until further notice, including the following:
▪ Fitness centers, health clubs, gyms, aquatic centers
▪ Hair salons and barber shops
▪ Massage parlors
▪ Beauty salons, including tanning, nail and eyelash salons
▪ Tattoo parlors
▪ Flea markets
▪ Any social, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings of more than 10 people
“What we do today and what we do over the coming weeks will determine weather we are fighting this pandemic for four or five weeks as opposed to four or five months,” Elorza said at a City Hall news conference. “These weeks are absolutely critical to make sure that we stop the spread because for it gets out of control."
The mayor said he was closing those categories of businesses because they “invite customers from the street into establishments and also encourage hand-to-hand and sometimes physical touching between customers and business owners and employees.”
Raimondo acknowledged that the state isn’t testing as many people as they want because of a lack of swabs.
At this point, those who are a priority for tests include healthcare workers who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus, people who are hospitalized, and those in nursing homes. In general, people are also tested if they have traveled abroad recently or have had direct contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Between 100 to 200 people a day are being tested, she said, but they want to ramp up those efforts to 500 to 600 tests a day, expanding to people who are showing symptoms.
Raimondo said the state is trying to increase its testing capacity and has received a “hugely effective" and "heartwarming” response to a plea she made Thursday for more supplies to conduct testing and protect healthcare workers.
She said the state is doing more tests per capita than most states, but it is now reaching out to the private sector to increase testing capacity. “It’s a top priority right now,” she said, but acknowledged that health officials aren’t sure when the expanded testing would begin.
The news conference in the State Room was the first one held remotely, using pool photographers and having reporters submit questions electronically. Throughout, Raimondo sought to strike an optimistic tone, thanking the businesses that had stepped up with offers to help fill in the need for more equipment for healthcare workers.
She again implored people to stay home this weekend and avoid crowds of more than 10 people.
“This weekend could be the most critical weekend in this entire fight. We are so close to keeping a lid on this. There are so many people who have worked so hard to get us here,” Raimondo said. "Hang in there with us. We’re going to keep working. We’re going to improve the testing capacity. I feel more confident than ever -- I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I need you to hunker down this weekend and do what we’ve asked you to do.”
Raimondo said she was fully activating the National Guard. Guard members had been helping already, but now 1,000 National Guard members will be available to staff call centers, deliver food, and continue to help at drive-through testing centers, she said.
“As the days and weeks have dragged on, this has become a 24/7 operation, and we need more boots on the ground to help us do this," Raimondo said.
The governor said the state will push back the tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15, in keeping with the same action by the federal government. But she asked Rhode Islanders who can afford to pay their taxes on time to do so.
Raimondo said she does not plan to issue a “shelter in place” order, as California’s governor has done, because that would shut down the state’s economy.
When asked if state workers could be facing layoffs or furloughs, Raimondo said that after dealing with the immediate crisis, state officials will need to take “a very hard look at our budget," and layoffs and furloughs would be “on the table” along with other options.
Layoffs and furloughs would be a last option that “you want to avoid at all costs," she said. But much will depend on how quickly the state economy gets going again, how robust the federal government stimulus is, and whether bond markets can meet the state’s short-term cash needs, she said.
Earlier Friday, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha warned the public to watch out for scams that attempt to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scammers are promising federal aid checks while asking for upfront payment, bank account information, and Social Security numbers, he said, and he urged people not to share personally identifiable information in response to these phone calls, texts, and e-mails.
“The checks do not exist yet," Neronha said. “If you receive a message promising you that money, it’s a scam."
The attorney general’s consumer protection team has received complaints from Rhode Islanders who have received text messages urging them to click on a link to receive their “$1,000 assistance check” or e-mails with the subject line “COVID-19 PANDEMIC STIMULUS PACKAGE," he said. When consumers click on the link or open the e-mail, they are asked to provide personal information, including bank account and Social Security numbers, to get their check.
“These are challenging times and many people could use some relief," Neronha said. "Unfortunately, there are scammers who will try and take advantage of people in need. If you see it, call us.”
The attorney general’s Consumer Protection Unit can be reached at (401) 274-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv. Amanda Milkovits can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.