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Narragansett council president wants the seaside town to ignore R.I. governor’s coronavirus rules

A surfer walks along the shore at Narragansett Beach in Rhode Island.
A surfer walks along the shore at Narragansett Beach in Rhode Island.x

In the first official sign of rebellion against Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s coronavirus-related restrictions, the president of the town council in Narragansett wants to order police to let businesses and residents violate her orders with impunity.

Raimondo called the idea “a huge mistake,” “selfish” and “reckless.”

The president, Matthew Mannix, filed a resolution asking his fellow councilors to direct the Narragansett police not to fine or issue violations to any church, restaurant, store, or other small business that violates Raimondo’s executive orders.

Councilors are scheduled to take up the matter Monday, but it’s unclear how much support Mannix, a Republican, will get. The only Democrat on the panel, Jesse Pugh, called the idea “incredibly irresponsible,” and Patrick Murray, one of Mannix’s fellow Republicans, said everyone should give the Democratic governor “the benefit of the doubt.”

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Raimondo’s orders, formulated with health officials and designed to curb the spread of the deadly virus, were eased a week ago under the first phase of a reopening plan. She lifted her stay-at-home order and allowed nonessential retail stores to open if they practiced physical distancing. On Monday, restaurants can offer outdoor dining with certain limits.

However, her orders that all residents must wear masks in public if physical distancing is not possible is still in effect, houses of worship and close-contact businesses such as barber shops and nail salons must stay closed, gatherings are still limited to five people, and out-of-state visitors must quarantine for 14 days.

Even if the council approved Mannix’s proposal, it’s not enforceable, according to Jared Goldstein, associate dean for academic affairs at Roger Williams University School of Law.

“They are showboating,” he said. “They want to adopt an order that makes a statement, like the ‘Liberate Rhode Island’ and the ‘open it up’ movement.”

The resolution is ultimately ineffective and unconstitutional, Goldstein said. “It’s a symbolic gesture,” he said, “and it’s meant to make a Trumpy point aligned with right-wing extremists -- that the governor doesn’t have power to protect us from the virus.”

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The resolution represents a change of heart for Mannix, who joined with his fellow councilors two months ago to issue a local state of emergency, close the town beach, and urge residents to stay home. At the time, Mannix said Narragansett’s “resilient and hardy" residents needed to exhibit another character trait: patience.

But with Memorial Day around the corner, Mannix’s patience apparently has run out. His proposal says the restrictions “have imposed substantial harm to the emotional, spiritual, and financial well-being of its residents.”

Mannix and Police Chief Sean Corrigan did not respond to requests for comment. Phone calls and texts sent to the other two GOP council members, Jill Lawler and Richard Lema, were not returned.

But Raimondo did address the resolution during her daily media briefing Friday, calling it “a huge mistake.”

“It’s so selfish to all the people of Rhode Island who have worked so hard for so long, putting their lives on hold, their children’s education in their home, their businesses on hold, so we can all be safe,” she said. "Every expert you talk to, the experience of every country that’s done a good job with this is, if you take it slowly, you can get back to a good place.

“I get that people are frustrated, I do. I really do,” Raimondo added. “That is a reckless thing to do, and I really hope they don’t do it.”

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The resolution swiftly circulated on social media, catching Narragansett residents by surprise. In the town of 15,500 residents, 28 people have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. That’s the 11th-lowest rate of the state’s 39 cities and towns.

But the summer tourism season nearly doubles the town population. Some residents said they worried that opening too soon -- and in defiance of state orders -- would turn the town into a hotspot that could reverberate throughout Rhode Island.

“I don’t think [the resolution] is reasonable,” said Jon Buser, who lives a short walk from Bonnet Shores. “I think we have to be in this together. There are great risks ahead of us, and I don’t think it’s wise to flaunt those risks. Giving a short boost to the economy could lead to serious economic consequences down the line, as well. The most important factor should be public health.”

Melissa Jenkins, who lives at Bonnet Shores, was horrified. “This endangers not just Narragansett, but the whole state,” said Jenkins, who runs the statewide Collective Action Network. “We have beautiful beaches, and everybody wants to come here -- and they will, until everybody gets sick.”


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com