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Vacationing in R.I. this summer? You might need to be tested first

An electronic sign in downtown Westerly, R.I., informed motorists of the 14-day quarantine policy for out-of-staters announced by Governor Gina Raimondo in March.
An electronic sign in downtown Westerly, R.I., informed motorists of the 14-day quarantine policy for out-of-staters announced by Governor Gina Raimondo in March.Harold Hanka/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — If you’re a tourist or second-home owner planning to visit Rhode Island this summer, you might have to start your vacation with a swab up the nose.

As the state begins to loosen the restrictions it implemented in March to contain the coronavirus and reopen the economy, Governor Gina Raimondo said Wednesday that state officials are considering asking any person from out of state who wants to vacation in Rhode Island to be tested for the disease.

“I want to figure out how we can enable some tourism,” Raimondo said. “A big percent of our economy is tourism, and what the commerce secretary and I are doing, with our community mitigation team, is figuring out, how do we do that? One option could be testing tourists.”

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Raimondo acknowledged that no decision has been made on the idea, which came as governors struggle to devise a strategy to manage the approaching vacation season amid the pandemic.

Rhode Island is part of a seven-state consortium, which includes Massachusetts and Connecticut, that is working on a regional approach to reopen the economy, and Raimondo said travel is one of the issues the leaders are discussing.

Hospitality industry leaders across the region were divided on whether the idea of widely expanding testing offers a road map to saving the summer tourism industry or places unfair expectations on hotels and restaurants to offer health care services that their employees aren’t qualified to deliver.

Evan Smith, the president and CEO of Discover Newport, said he doesn’t want to see “unregulated, unchecked mobility” all summer, but he questioned whether it is practical for any state to implement a testing program for all tourists. He said he’d rather see a strong marketing plan to promote safe travel.

"You can't ask a front door clerk to be a nurse,” Smith said.

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Raimondo initially floated the tourist testing idea in an interview on Washington Post Live Wednesday morning, but later in the day she acknowledged the state wouldn’t have the ability to make testing mandatory.

Although Rhode Island has lifted its stay-at-home order, and restaurants and nonessential retailers are beginning to reopen, the state still limits visitors from out of state to those who are arriving to work, shop, or visit a doctor — not for recreation or leisure activities such as golf. Second-home owners who stay for an extended period of time must self-quarantine for 14 days.

Raimondo said she doesn’t want that quarantine rule for out-of-staters to continue into the summer, but she acknowledged that decision will depend on how the state handles outbreaks as the economy begins to reopen.

“I don’t know what July is going to look like," Raimondo said. "I cannot stand here today in the second week of May and say this is what I think is going to happen in July.”

‘Every idea should be given a hearing. That is not a bad idea.’

Sharon McDonnell, a consulting epidemiologist at the Maine Medical Center

Stephen Tagliatela, who runs the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa in Old Saybrook, Conn., and is president of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition, said that he thinks it’s a good idea to expand testing, but that requiring tourists to be tested would be an overreach.

“It might be good for Connecticut,” Tagliatela said. “If they do it and we don’t, maybe we can benefit from it.”

Raimondo previously caught the ire of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in March when she ordered the State Police and the National Guard to pull over drivers with New York license plates to inform them that they must self-quarantine for 14 days if they were staying in Rhode Island. Cuomo threatened to sue, and Raimondo later expanded the order to include every state.

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But Sharon McDonnell, a consulting epidemiologist at the Maine Medical Center, said Raimondo’s idea is worth considering. She said testing is going to be one of the tools that states need to begin reopening their economies, especially for those that depend heavily on summer tourism.

“Every idea should be given a hearing,” McDonnell said. “That is not a bad idea. I’ve heard much worse ideas. One of them is to open everything up and let the chips fall where they may.”

Officials in Rhode Island have said they want to administer 10,000 tests per day by July, but Wednesday was the first time that Raimondo discussed a plan for tourists. It’s not uncommon for some Rhode Island beach communities in the state to welcome thousands of visitors each day during the summer. On Block Island, for example, the population booms from about 1,000 year-round residents to 25,000 people a day in July and August.

While Raimondo said she isn’t ready to fully unveil her plan for the summer, industry leaders in other states said the clock is ticking for the region.

Smith, from Discover Newport, predicted that hotels will likely need to know by June 21 what conditions and requirements they’ll be operating under this summer. If no plan emerges, he said, some hotel operators have said they’ll remain closed until the fall.

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Mike Somers, the CEO and president of the New Hampshire Lodging & Restaurant Association, said his members are still seeking the same guidance. But he said he doesn’t see a scenario where businesses would want to have any responsibility for testing tourists.

“We are looking forward to a busy tourism season, we're ready to start welcoming guests,” Somers said. “But to have some sort of testing protocol, I'm not sure how you would manage it.”

In Maine, tourism organizations and businesses are begging Governor Janet Mills to rescind an order for out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days. In an open letter to the governor, posted on the Maine Tourism Association site Tuesday, seven tourism organizations said the state's tourism economy was on the verge of collapse. They said they were working on a plan to reopen safely, if Mills would lift the quarantine order on visitors.

Sean Riley, who runs the Maine Course Hospitality Group, said he doesn’t envy the decisions governors across the country have had to make during the pandemic. He said he could support a regional testing program for New England states, but suggested it should involve pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens teaming up to test residents in their own states before they travel to their vacation destinations.

Like Raimondo, Riley said states need to understand what summer travel means to the local economy.

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“If we have no tourism this summer, we have no jobs,” Riley said.

Amanda Milkovits of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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