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Governor Raimondo outlines metrics for reopening the Rhode Island economy

Plans call for easing restrictions gradually while recognizing the state has a dense population with a high proportion of older, vulnerable residents

Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo gives her daily COVID-19 update Monday afternoon with Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Department of Health director (left) and Department of Administration director Brett Smiley (right). [The Providence Journal / Kris Craig]
Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo gives her daily COVID-19 update Monday afternoon with Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Department of Health director (left) and Department of Administration director Brett Smiley (right). [The Providence Journal / Kris Craig]Kris Craig, The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Monday outlined her plan for reopening the economy amid the COVID-19 outbreak, saying she wants to loosen restrictions soon but that the state is slowed by “headwinds” such as being densely populated.

“We will get everyone back to work,” Raimondo said. “But we have to be honest that we face some headwinds that other states don’t have.”

For example, she noted Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state, behind New Jersey, and Rhode Island has a high proportion of elderly residents, who are most at risk from the COVID-19 respiratory illness.

Also, Rhode Island is reliant on tourism, which is taking a hit amid the pandemic; it has a high proportion of low-skill workers who are struggling; and it has a lot of small businesses that may lack the ability to have employees work remotely and reopen quickly, she said.

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Raimondo said her “stay at home" order will remain in place until May 8. “It is really my hope is that between now and May 8, we will start to see a decline in the rate of infection so that shortly thereafter we can start to loosen some of these restrictions," she said.

But before easing restrictions, she said she will ask six key questions, including:

  • Is the rate of spread of COVID-19 decreasing?
  • Does the state have the capacity to quickly identify community spread so it can halt another outbreak?
  • Does the state have a support system in place for vulnerable populations, such as older Rhode Islanders, and anyone in quarantine?
  • Does the health care system have the capacity, the equipment, and the supplies -- the hospital beds, the ventilators, and the face masks - to handle future surges?
  • Do businesses, schools, churches and recreation centers have plans for long-term social distancing?
  • And is Rhode Island ready to reimpose restrictions if it sees another surge in infections?
Governor Gina M. Raimondo's six indicators for reopening the Rhode Island economy amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo's six indicators for reopening the Rhode Island economy amid the coronavirus outbreak.Courtesy of Governor Gina Raimondo's Office

“We never again want to be in a position where we need to do what we just did, and what we lived through, with a complete shutdown across the board," Raimondo said.

She warned that other places, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, have seen cases spike again because they tried to restart their economies too soon.

Raimondo said that when she took office six years ago, Rhode Island had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, but since then the unemployment rate dropped dramatically.

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Now, the state economy is in bad shape again. So, she said, “It means we have to do it again. We are going to stand our economy back up together.”

This time, the process will be quicker because “the building blocks are in place,” Raimondo said. “But it will require us to be brave -- even though we will be anxious and afraid to go back to work or go out to eat.”

She said she plans to bring the economy back online in a gradual way -- one industry at a time, with new regulations. For example, the state now prohibits gatherings of more than five people, and that limit is not going to jump from five to 100 people all at once, she said.

“I will ask you to be patient," Raimondo said. "My goal will be to get as many people back to work as fast as is safely possible.”

In the months ahead, Rhode Islanders will have to endure a certain amount of frustration.

“It won’t happen fast enough for any of us, including me," she said. "But in four, six, nine months from now, when we are back to work a bit more, living our lives a bit more, you will be able to see Rhode Island has stayed at the cutting edge of what we are doing.”

Raimondo outlined those plans as the state Department of Health reported that five more Rhode Islanders have died from the coronavirus, bringing the state death toll to 155.

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Another 339 people have tested positive test for the virus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness, bringing the total number of cases to 5,090, the Department of Health reported.

A total of 272 Rhode Islanders are now hospitalized with the virus, including 62 in the intensive care unit and 45 on ventilators, according to DOH data.

The five new fatalities include one person in their 60s, one person in their 80s, and three people in their 90s, said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health.

On Monday, the Department of Health released a chart with updated demographic data on COVID-19 in Rhode Island.

The chart shows Latinos account for 42 percent of those with confirmed cases of COVID-19, African-Americans account for 12 percent of the cases, and whites 42 percent of the cases. By contrast, Latinos make up 16 percent of the state’s population, African-Americans 8.4 percent of the population, and whites 84 percent of the population, according to census data.

Those percentages do not include cases with unknown or declined demographic information. Alexander-Scott said health officials were not collecting demographic data at the outset of the outbreak. But they are now, and they’re trying to determine the reasons for the disparities, she said.

“We know there is not going to be just one answer about why this is occurring here in Rhode Island and nationally,” Alexander-Scott said.

Among the factors that are likely at play includes the demographic makeup of those working in hospitals and nursing homes, warehouses, factories, and the food industry, and structural factors likely include the stability of housing and whether workers earn a “living wage,” she said. “Eighty percent of what makes people healthy happens outside what actually happens in the examination room,” she said.

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While Latinos account for 42 percent of the coronavirus cases, they account for 9 percent of deaths associated with COVID-19, according to the Department of Health data. African-Americans account for 4 percent of the deaths, and whites account for 78 percent of the deaths.

Also on Monday, Raimondo announced that the federal government has approved the state’s request for extra money for food for the families of 73,000 students who rely on school meals. The increase will come to $5.70 for each child for each day school buildings have been closed, going back to March 16, when distancing learning began -- or about $200 so far, she said.

Families who now receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit should receive the added money right away, while other eligible families will get new Electronic Benefits Transfer cards by May 1, Raimondo said.

Some families will receive cards because their students are in school districts, such as Providence, where the entire community is considered eligible, she said. If families don’t need the benefits, they can destroy the cards, and the money will be returned to the federal government, she said.

Alexander-Scott said the state now has two phone lines for visually impaired Rhode Islanders to call in to hear the latest COVID-19 data. For the English message, call (401) 222-8280. For the Spanish message, call (401) 222-2385.

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