PROVIDENCE – Every day around 1 p.m., Governor Gina Raimondo takes her place behind a podium, stares into the camera, and begins updating Rhode Islanders on what they should and should not be doing as the novel coronavirus spreads across the state.
Her message often comes with a plea to residents: Even if you’re a little sick, stay home from work.
So imagine what would happen if Raimondo or another elected official suddenly developed a fever. Or a dry cough. Or they lost their ability to smell or taste, one of the more common symptoms of the virus.
It’s not inconceivable. A unnamed member of the executive branch has already tested positive, according to Department of Administration spokeswoman Brenna McCabe.
As state health officials urge residents to take more precautions against contracting the disease and isolate themselves if they do become infected, Rhode Island’s five statewide officeholders are taking their own steps to ensure that government functions will continue in the event that they do fall ill in the coming weeks.
For example, because Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee is first in line to succeed the governor were she to fall seriously ill, "we have restricted the lieutenant governor’s interactions to reduce exposure,” said Andrea Palagi, a McKee spokeswoman. “We have been ramping up the use of technology and remote work to keep the office effective and working for Rhode Islanders.”
Under the state constitution, the lieutenant governor would fill the office of governor if it were to become “vacant by reason of death, resignation, impeachment or inability to serve.” If both the governor and lieutenant governor are incapacitated, the speaker of the House of Representatives is next up, and "shall in like manner fill the office of governor during such vacancy.”
Josh Block, a spokesman for Raimondo, said it is unlikely that the governor would relinquish any of her authority simply because she contracted the coronavirus. He said Raimondo would likely work from home, just as if she had come down with the flu.
The Centers for Disease Control has said that older people and those with underlying medical conditions have a higher risk of serious complications from the coronavirus, so it’s less likely that any of Rhode Island’s statewide officeholders would be unable to perform their duties if they did become infected.
Nearly 400,000 people worldwide have contracted the coronavirus, and 16,000 have died. Rhode Island had 106 confirmed cases as of Monday, with zero deaths to date. Raimondo and McKee have not been tested for the virus.
Aides to Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and Attorney General Peter Neronha all said their bosses also have not been tested.
While the constitution does spell out what happens if the other statewide officeholders can no longer perform their duties – the General Assembly can appoint someone to fill the vacancies – the offices also have continuity of operations plans in place.
If McKee needs to self-quarantine, “he will continue to monitor the staff and work remotely,” Palagi said. "The staff is in constant contact and knows which responsibilities belong to them.”
For Gorbea’s office, chief of staff Gonzalo Cuervo, who is the first deputy secretary of state, would serve as acting secretary, according spokesman Nick Domings. If Cuervo were absent, director of administration and second deputy Melissa Husband would fill in.
In the treasury, an office that is likely to become more vital as Raimondo seeks to plug a massive budget hole created by the fallout from the coronavirus, staffers have “taken steps to ensure that key operations continue uninterrupted for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis,” according to spokesman Evan England.
England said the majority of the staff is working from home, and there are redundancies in place to ensure core functions continue if any of the employees become sick.
“If the treasurer becomes ill temporarily, the treasury’s chief operating officer is prepared to oversee day-to-day operations of the office,” England said.
In the event that Neronha falls ill, “he will continue to run the office remotely by teleworking, which he is fully equipped to do, as is the entire senior staff team,” said spokeswoman Kristy dosReis.
If Neronha becomes incapacitated, Deputy Attorney General Adi Goldstein would assume responsibility, dosReis said.
She said that the office has “been adjusting our operations” for several weeks, including asking nearly all of its employees to work remotely. She said senior staff and supervisors have a rotation schedule in place, and they have “all been diligent about social distancing and abiding by the recommended hygiene practices.”