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What will it take to reopen R.I.’s economy? Planning, partnership, and a little bit of luck

PROVIDENCE, RI -- 4/10/2020
RI Governor Gina Raimondo holds her daily briefing on the COVID-19 situation.   

[The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo]
PROVIDENCE, RI -- 4/10/2020 RI Governor Gina Raimondo holds her daily briefing on the COVID-19 situation. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo] Sandor Bodo/The Providence Journal/Pool Photo

PROVIDENCE – If you watched Governor Gina Raimondo’s daily coronavirus press conference on Monday afternoon, the grim complexities of the crisis that Rhode Island is facing were on full display.

In the span of five minutes, Raimondo announced that 10 people had died from the highly contagious disease in the last day, and then she quickly switched gears to address the 144,000 unemployment claims that have been filed since the virus first emerged last month.

The quick transition from deaths to jobs numbers might ordinarily be interpreted as callousness, but it’s a stark reminder of the multidimensional challenges that governors across the country – not to mention, President Trump – are facing as this public health emergency wreaks havoc on the US economy.

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Indeed, even as Rhode Island braces for the death toll to multiply in the coming weeks, Raimondo and other state officials are working behind the scenes on plans to gradually reopen the economy on an industry-by-industry basis.

Raimondo was among seven northeastern governors – including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker – to announce Monday that they have formed a task force that will explore ways to safely begin putting people across the region back to work while trying to avert a spike in coronavirus cases as social distancing practices are relaxed.

“The reality is this virus doesn’t care about state borders, and our response shouldn't either,” Raimondo said during a conference call to announce the partnership. “So I fully support this effort to make sure we get to the business of getting back to work in as smart and safe a way as possible.”

Raimondo said she expects to appoint her chief of staff David Ortiz and officials in her commerce department and health department to the task force.

While the regional partnership is in its infancy, Raimondo and Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor have been meeting for weeks with the leaders of various industry associations to discuss what a phased-in reopening of the economy might look like.

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Like many of her colleagues in the region, Raimondo ordered most restaurant and retail businesses closed last month as part of an effort to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus outbreak. Doing so, she argued, bought the state time to prepare hospitals for the oncoming surge.

In a telephone interview with the Globe on Monday, Raimondo said she still doesn’t have a target date for when she expects to begin allowing businesses to reopen, but she said “I’m in the process of putting together metrics that I want to see in place.”

Raimondo said those metrics include the number of tests per capita, where Rhode Island ranks among the best in country. She’ll also look at the availability of hospital beds and spaces to quarantine and isolate patients in the event that the number of cases start to increase as businesses reopen.

She also said that she wants to have a “surveillance testing protocol” in place and she wants to see the number of positive coronavirus tests each day begin to stabilize. On Monday, Rhode Island had 311 new confirmed cases, bringing the state’s total to 2,976.

“If you are still [growing] at 20 percent a day, you can’t do it,” Raimondo said.

But Raimondo is expected to begin rolling out industry-by-industry guidelines as soon as this week. The governor has already urged residents to wear masks any time they leave the house, but she has said that she is considering making it mandatory that workers wear masks during any face-to-face interaction with customers. As stringent as that might sound, it also suggests a path to allow some businesses to reopen.

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“We're considering taking some new steps that are consistent with the governor's recent advice to Rhode Islanders in general,” Pryor, the commerce secretary, said in an interview on Monday.

Pryor said the state is also in the process of conducting comprehensive research on how some Asian countries – including South Korea, China, and Singapore – have “flattened their curve” and get people back to work.

“We're aiming to understand at an intricate level what it takes to reopen a retail store, what it takes to reopen as restaurant, and what it takes to reopen an office space,” Pryor said.

Like the rest of the country, the job losses in Rhode Island over the last month are unparalleled to any time in recent history. With 144,000 coronavirus-specific unemployment claims, the state’s unemployment rate is now likely north of 15 percent, after it was just 3.4 percent in February.

As workers await their unemployment checks, business owners are scrambling to secure lines of credit and loans to cover basic expenses while they remain closed.

Earlier in the day Monday, Raimondo and Pryor held a conference call to announce the state is partnering with Goldman Sachs and the Community Reinvestment Fund to launch a $10 million small business loan program. The money was fully committed within hours, and the program is no longer accepting applications.

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In forming the regional partnership, Raimondo and other governors are acknowledging that their success in battling the virus is linked together. It’s a more diplomatic approach than Raimondo’s controversial decision few weeks ago to have law enforcement stop vehicles with out-of-state license plates to order occupants to self-quarantine, although the governor hasn’t backed off that order.

But while it’s understandable that Raimondo is eager to restart the economy, policymakers “must resist the temptation" to move forward based solely "on business pressure or economy needs only,” said Edinaldo Tebaldi, an economics professor at Bryant University.

“Right now businesses and policy makers face a perfect storm in terms of randomness and uncertainty,” Tebaldi said. He said it’s vital for officials to heed the advice of health experts rather rushing to put people back to work.

Still, Tebaldi said he remains optimistic that the economy can be reactivated.

“The recovery may not be as fast as the sharp downturn experienced during the last month, but it can happen faster than anyone can predict at this point,” Tebaldi said.


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