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One month into the coronavirus crisis, Rhode Island fears a lost summer

A man walked his dog down an empty street in downtown Westerly, R.I.
A man walked his dog down an empty street in downtown Westerly, R.I.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Spring is stirring on Block Island, and the thousand or so year-rounders know what that means: The owners of second homes on the 10-square-mile haven start arriving by ferry to turn on the electricity, dust off the beach chairs, set out the lawn furniture. It’s a ritual as familiar as the green beacon of Southeast Light.

But this year, the arrivals were different. Newcomers, and a lot of them. That’s when it dawned on residents: These folks weren’t coming to prep their summer cottages. They were coming to escape the coronavirus.

So officials of New Shoreham, Block Island’s town, jumped into action, implementing one of the toughest coronavirus restrictions in the country. Anyone who comes to the island must stay and self-quarantine for 14 days. That essentially bans day trippers, including those who work on the island but live elsewhere. There’s now just one boat a day to and from the island.

“I know we’re being really strict right now," said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council. "But we’re trying to save the summer.”

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Save the summer.

It’s been one month since Rhode Island reported its first cases of COVID-19, the debilitating respiratory illness caused by the new virus — an administrator and a student at Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, who apparently contracted it while on a February school vacation week trip to Europe. Now nearly 500 people from almost every city and town have been infected. Eight have died.

As residents prepare for at least another month of working from home, distance learning for kids, empty streets, and closed stores, they’re finding creative ways to inspire hope while reminding themselves that the sacrifices they’re making now may be the only chance they have at enjoying Rhode Island’s most precious season.

But the road to that hopefulness hasn’t been easy.

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Governor Gina Raimondo declared a state of emergency March 9. Soon, she urged people to avoid crowds of 250 or more people. Within two weeks, that number was down to 10 people, and by last weekend, she asked residents to make a list of the five most essential people in their lives and avoid everyone else.

Restaurants were closed to dine-in service. Malls and shopping plazas were shuttered. And more than 70,000 people were laid off, which could more than quadruple the state’s jobless rate for March.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that anything like this would happen, and happen so quickly,” said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. “You drive through the streets in the middle of the day, and the streets are barren. Everything is on lockdown.”

Elorza was one of the first mayors in the country to declare his own state of emergency, and his decision March 12 to ban gatherings of more than 100 people forced restaurants and nightclubs to close and weddings to be postponed.

But the infections continued to climb. What started as a few coronavirus cases that health officials were easily tracing to foreign trips or contact with other infected people quickly became dozens and then hundreds of cases.

The restrictions tightened. Raimondo ordered all arrivals from out of state to self-quarantine for 14 days, and ordered the National Guard to enforce the rules. Even in tiny Central Falls, police drive around the city playing a recording of the mayor urging residents to stay home.

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By Monday, only three communities — Block Island, Richmond, and West Greenwich — still had zero cases.

“I have been saying for weeks that deaths are inevitable,” Raimondo said recently. "In the weeks to come, we are going be climbing up the curve.”

So it’s not easy to remain upbeat. Spring usually means trips to PawSox games (at least for one more season) or the zoo. On warm days, a stop at Del’s Lemonade might be in order.

A police officer drove past an empty McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket.
A police officer drove past an empty McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Today, there are different amusements. Community singing. The flashing of lights. And yes, laughing.

Jenica Conley, who lives in Providence’s West End, worked with her neighborhood association to form a daily singing group – at a distance, of course. They picked up the idea from people in Italy, which has had more than 12,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

The group sings one song a night, and they’re now exploring ways to continue the practice over Zoom.

“I was hoping it would be a little ray of sunshine,” Conley said.

Those special moments are happening in every community. A store in Providence has sold thousands of T-shirts with Raimondo’s favorite daily slogan on the front: “Knock it off” (directed at Rhode Islanders who ignore her stay-at-home plea). Coaches in Central Falls have started a push-up challenge to keep kids stuck at home in shape.

In Cumberland, Holly and Mike Griffin and their three children turned their Christmas lights back on, and have vowed to keep them on for as long as the crisis continues. They want people to know that although it’s a dark time, “there’s still a lot to be grateful for.”

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The message worked. Other homes around the state have followed suit, and the family’s lights were featured on the NBC Nightly News.

“It's the best kind of viral you can be right now, I guess,” she joked.

Still, as summer looms, uncertainties remain.

Larry Anderson, a town councilman in Little Compton, said his community has faced the same challenge as other coastal towns: More people arriving sooner, stoking fear among some residents.

Most have respected the governor’s orders and played by the rules, he said, but “the weather will get warmer and better,” and people will soon want to use the beaches and other public areas.

The same goes for Block Island.

Willi, who runs the tourism council there, said the town population explodes from 1,000 year-round residents to as many as 25,000 vacationers and workers on a given summer day.

The town’s biggest revenue months, in order, are August, July, September, and June. If the coronavirus wipes out most of June, she said the town can survive.

And if the other months succumb? Her answer was short and brutal.

“Economic devastation.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.