PROVIDENCE -- In less than two weeks, Rhode Islanders may be able to gather in slightly larger numbers, have access to restaurant dine-in seating, have a few more options for child care, be able to visit some parks and beaches, and even go to the dentist.
They’re all part of Phase One of the state’s new plan to start easing restrictions on some businesses and social gatherings on Saturday, May 9 announced Monday by Governor Gina M. Raimondo.
The first phase, titled “Testing the Waters,” would allow some business and social activity to resume while keeping “significant restrictions” in place, she said.
For example, the limit of gatherings would rise from five people to 10 people. And while a limited number of employees would be allowed to return to their offices, anyone who can work from home would have to continue to do so.
“This is not ‘May 9th everybody goes to work,’ ” she said. “If we do this right, May 9th won’t look that different than May 7th and May 8th.”
Restaurants will still be limited to pickup, delivery, and drive-through services, but there will be “pilots of seated dining," including outdoor dining, she said. Working parents will have limited options for child care, and there will be “limited reopening" of parks and beaches, with strong social distancing guidelines in place, she said.
Primary care and community health providers will remain open, with other health professions, such as physical therapists and behavioral therapists, will start to reopen with updated safety protocols, she said. And Phase 1 will include a pilot reopening of dentists’ offices under strict new regulations.
The reopening of the economy will be “slow, pinpointed, and gradual,” Raimondo said, with the three phases spelled out at a new website, Reopening RI.
Raimondo outlined the three phases as the state Department of Health announced that another seven Rhode Islanders have died from the coronavirus -- all residents of congregate care facilities such as nursing homes -- and 269 more people have tested positive for COVID-19. That brings the state death toll to 233 and the total number of positive tests to 7,708.
“We saw an uptick over the weekend in hospitalizations and ICU occupancy,” Raimondo said. “But overall it’s a very stable picture. We seem to be having a plateau.”
The governor warned that she won’t be able to lift the “stay at home” order on May 9 if Rhode Islanders ignore social distancing directives over the next two weeks.
“I’m taking a little bit of a risk today because I’m telling you what you might be able to do two weeks from today, so I’m trusting you," Raimondo said. "If in the next two weeks, you start to violate the stay-at-home order, then we’re going to see an uptick in hospitalizations and then I’m not going to be able to lift that stay-at-home order. And that would be a shame.”
She said the first phase will not go well if people begin holding regular dinner parties with 10 different people, for example. Rather, the first phase is meant to provide a little flexibility to see family and friends.
“We will put our toe in the water and see how much we can do," Raimondo said. Other countries have tried to reopen their economies too soon and have seen new spikes in infections, she said.
But she emphasized that she does not want to keep anyone out of work any longer than necessary. “We are going to stand this economy back up," she said.
Rhode Island is in a better place than many states because it never closed the manufacturing or construction sectors of the economy, and testing capacity is better than most states, Raimondo said.
In Phase 2, titled “Navigating Our Way,” the limit on social gatherings will increase to 15 people. Additional child care options will be available, and more restaurants, retail shops, and “close-contact businesses” such hair and nail salons will be open, she said.
But those establishments may open with new restrictions. For example, restaurants might have fewer tables, and they might not have printed menus, she said.
In Phase 3, titled “Picking Up Steam,” the limit on social gatherings will rise to 50 people. Offices, restaurants, retail, and other businesses will lift some of the tightest restrictions to allow more people in at one time, and the state will look to reopen schools with restrictions.
“Then we will have real confidence that we can live with the virus safely,” Raimondo said. “We will learn from our mistakes and be able to adjust our approach accordingly.”
Places that rely on big crowds -- such as conventions, sporting events, and concerts -- will be the last to resume normal operations, she said. “We will get there when we get there,” she said.
Throughout all the phases, it will be crucial for Rhode Islanders to continue wearing masks, staying six feet apart, washing hands, and trying not to go out more than needed, she said.
So how will the state determine whether it’s ready to advance from one phase to the next?
Raimondo said the state will need to see a 14-day downward trend in the number of cases -- or a 14-day trend in stable or declining hospitalizations. “We have our eye firmly focused on those hospitalizations,” she said.
On Monday, Rhode Island had 266 people hospitalized with the respiratory illness, with 81 of those in intensive care units and 56 on ventilators, according to the most recent Department of Health data. The number of people hospitalized was up from 258 people the day before.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, said each step in the reopening plan is informed by public health guidance, data, and science. But, she said, “it is critical that we continue to follow the stay-at-home order in place now. That is only way to initiate the steps shared for Phase 1.”
Alexander-Scott said the seven new fatalities include one person in their 50s, one in their 60s, one in their 70s, one in their 80s, and three in their 90s.
Earlier Monday, state officials announced that 11 more residents of the Rhode Island Veterans Home have tested positive for the coronavirus. In all, 12 residents and four staff members have now tested positive at the Veterans Home in Bristol.
The positive tests concern health officials who hope the outbreak does not turn into the kind of widespread infections and deaths that erupted at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, a Massachusetts facility where 76 veterans have died.
Alexander-Scott said the Department of Health worked with the National Guard to get almost all of the residents and staff members at the Veterans Home tested for the virus.
Health officials are taking an “aggressive infection control approach” by identifying those who have the virus but are not displaying symptoms, she said. That is crucial in a place such as the Veterans Home, where a high-risk population lives close together, she said.