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Third coronavirus death reported in Rhode Island; governor defends policy on New Yorkers

Raimondo says N.Y. Governor Cuomo is “welcome to sue”

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo speaks earlier this week about Rhode Island's response to the coronavirus.  (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo speaks earlier this week about Rhode Island's response to the coronavirus. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE -- A third Rhode Islander has died of COVID-19, and the state has 55 new cases, marking the largest single-day increase to date, Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced Sunday.

“We are starting to go up the curve at a pretty fast clip,” Raimondo said. “It is going to get worse before it gets better."

How much worse will depend on the willingness of state residents to follow social distancing rules, she said. “This is not cause for panic,” she said.

Raimondo also extended her 14-day quarantine order to all out-of-staters arriving in Rhode Island; previously it applied only to those from New York, which has the most cases and deaths. And she traded barbs with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who criticized the policy on New Yorkers.

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The third victim was a Rhode Island man in his 30s who died Saturday of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to state Department of Health spokesman David Levesque. Meanwhile, three nursing homes have cases of coronavirus, according to Dr. James McDonald, medical director of the state Department of Health.

Raimondo said the state now has a total of 294 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 101 healthcare workers, and 35 people are hospitalized. But with limited testing, the number of cases in Rhode Island is likely higher, she acknowledged.

On Saturday, Raimondo issued a stay-at-home order that applies to every resident until April 13. It requires that people leave their homes only for essential reasons, such as going to the grocery store or driving to work. She also banned gatherings of more than five people and ordered all “non-essential” retailers to close until at least April 13.

But Raimondo estimated that only 50 percent to 60 percent of residents are following the new rules. The governor said she saw crowds of people lining up for clamcakes in Narragansett on Saturday and nearly drove down there to break it up.

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“This virus is coming, it is coming fast, and we cannot outrun it,” Raimondo warned.

Sunday’s update came one day after Cuomo threatened to sue Rhode Island over Raimondo’s order requiring New Yorkers to remain quarantined for 14 days. The State Police were stopping cars with New York licenses plates and the National Guard was knocking on doors in coastal towns if they spotted New York license plates in driveways.

Cuomo called it an unconstitutional “reactionary policy,” but in his comments on CNN, he apparently misunderstood the policy, thinking that New Yorkers were barred from the state until they tested negative for the virus.

“He’s welcome to sue if he likes," Raimondo said of Cuomo. “He would have a very hard time because I am on firm legal ground."

Late Saturday, Raimondo signed a new order requiring anybody, not just New Yorkers, coming to Rhode Island from another state for a non-work-related purpose to immediately self-quarantine for 14 days.

The governor said she signed the superseding order to target travelers from any state because infection rates are shooting up in other areas as well.

Cuomo appeared to take credit for the policy change, but again, seemed misinformed when he posted a now-deleted tweet that said Raimondo had rescinded her order for arriving New Yorkers to quarantine. She actually extended the order to all out-of-staters.

“If he feels it’s important for him to take credit, go ahead,” Raimondo said of Cuomo. “I’m going to continue to work to keep Rhode Islanders safe."

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Raimondo said, “I think it’s odd that Governor Cuomo is focused on this sort of politics at a time when we are fighting disasters." But, she said, "I wish Governor Cuomo all the best with the crisis he has on his hands.”

Colonel James Manni, superintendent of the State Police, said all out-of-state passenger vehicles will be required to stop, not just those with New York plates, but commercial vehicles won’t be stopped.

Anyone planning to stay will be informed they must quarantine for two weeks and they must provide contact information in Rhode Island, he said. If drivers follow signs and stop at information centers along the southern border, they will receive information from the National Guard. If they do not stop, the State Police will pull them over and direct them to the closest information center.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island had blasted the original order targeting New York license plates as an unconstitutional “blunderbuss approach."

But Manni disputed that. “We have clear legal authority," he said. “It does not violate anyone’s constitutional rights.”

Raimondo emphasized that officers are collecting vital information by asking questions such as, "Where do you plan to stay? Have you tested positive?”

She said the State Police will continue to be at the Connecticut border to make sure anyone planning to stay in Rhode Island knows they must stay quarantined for 14 days, and the National Guard will continue “walkabouts” in coastal communities to tell out-of-state residents they must stay quarantined after arrival here.

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Raimondo also announced she is suspending all child care licenses until April 4. She had recently announced new regulations allowing child-care centers to stay open under certain circumstances, but she said child care centers should not remain open when she is prohibiting gatherings of five or more people.

Also, she said the state is giving Rhode Islanders 90-day extensions for Department of Motor Vehicles deadlines for license renewals, registrations, and other purposes.

In responding to questions from reporters, Raimondo said the federal government was unprepared for the pandemic.

“The brutal reality is this country and its public health infrastructure was not ready for this onslaught," she said. "The federal government, since the minute we started this, has been playing catch-up, and they are still playing catch-up.”

She said teams of state officials are “essentially on our own” as they “scour the world” to try to purchase ventilators, testing equipment, face masks, and other supplies, and to set up new hospital beds.

She said some other countries have been much quicker and effective in doing widespread testing for the virus.

“South Korea was quicker, aided by their federal government, led by the top, to have a robust, ubiquitous, rapid testing protocol," Raimondo said. “We are still struggling to get that done, state by state, here in America.”

But she said she plans to announce “sometime this week” that Rhode Island is conducting 1,000 tests per day, and she hopes to soon have a 30- to 60-day supply of masks and other personal protective equipment in Rhode Island.

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“We are not there yet,” she said.

Meanwhile, the University of Rhode Island announced that a “drive-through” COVID-19 testing site is opening on a university parking lot on Plains Road in Kingston.

About 50 medical and security personnel will be at the site, aiming to test up to 600 people per day. Testing, set to begin on Tuesday, will be by appointment only and is available only to pre-screened patients who must show a form provided to them by their doctor or the state Department of Health. The testing site will operate from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days per week.

“This partnership exemplifies the university’s Land Grant mission to serve our communities and support the state’s response to COVID-19,” URI said in a news release. “The National Guard has assured the university this is a completely controlled environment, and everyone on site will follow the strictest health and safety protocols."


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com