PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island’s unemployment rate shot up to 17 percent in April, reflecting the devastating toll taken on the state economy by the coronavirus pandemic, state officials announced Thursday.
“It’s a horrible number,” Governor Gina M. Raimondo said. “It’s devastating to have 17 percent unemployment.”
But, she said, “We are going to stand the economy back up, and we are going to get you back to work.”
Rhode Island’s unemployment rate had been 4.7 percent in March and 3.6 percent in April 2019, according to the state Department of Labor and Training.
“Today’s jobs numbers convey the immense extent of economic hardship that the COVID-19 crisis has brought upon Rhode Island workers and families,” Department of Labor and Training Director Scott Jensen said. “As many look forward to getting back to work, it remains critical that we follow the orders of public health officials to wear masks and social distance so that we can prevent further spread and reopen the economy as quickly — but as safely — as possible.”
The number of unemployed Rhode Island residents soared to 90,300 -- an increase of 63,800 from March. Over the year, the number of unemployed residents rose by 70,200.
The US unemployment rate was 14.7 percent in April, up from 4.4 percent in March and 3.6 percent in April 2019.
Raimondo said she is not surprised that Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is higher than the national rate.
The state’s economy is very dependent on service industries and small businesses, she said, and those sectors are being hit hard. Also, many residents work in jobs that don’t require college degrees, and they are feeling a lot of the economic pain, she said.
“Because our economy looked like that, we got hit harder," Raimondo said.
But she vowed to get Rhode Islanders back to work. “For some of you, that may be in a different job,” she said. “There are some industries -- retail in particular, service industries -- that are going to go through a transition. We are not going to let you get behind. It might take a little time to get you back to work.”
In responding to questions from reporters, Raimondo she would have closed down the state’s economy sooner if she knew back in March what she knows now.
She said Rhode Island acted “aggressively and early" in shutting down parts of the economy and putting social distancing restrictions in place.
“We got ahead of the virus and it never really overtook us,” Raimondo said. "Having said that -- look -- if I knew then what I know now, I would have shut down sooner. There is no doubt about that.”
Rhode Island is one of the most densely populated states, and it sits between “two massive hot spots of this crisis" -- New York City and Boston, she said. Also, the state contains “densely populated high-risk areas” such as Central Falls, Woonsocket, and parts of Providence, she said.
Yet, Raimondo said, “Our experience in containing the virus has been much, much better than some of those states around us.”
Now, she said, she is “obsessed” with testing and contact tracing because she never again wants to close school buildings or see the unemployment rate at 17 percent.
Some employers are having hard time getting people to return to work, she said. “Some of it is people are afraid,” she said.
But also, some employees are reluctant to return to large office complexes if they have been working from home, Raimondo said. Employers are asking her to do more to give people confidence that they can return to work safely, she said.
The state can help by providing personal protective equipment and encouraging more Rhode Islanders to use a new contact tracing app called “Crush COVID RI.” She said more than 25,000 residents have downloaded the app, which she unveiled on Tuesday.
“That is awesome,” she said. “That has blown away all our expectations.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has raised concerns about what it called the “potential ‘Big Brother’ aspects” of the app. Raimondo has emphasized that residents can enable or disable the app’s GPS tracking feature any time they want, and the data will remain on their phones, automatically deleted in 20 days.
On Thursday, the Department of Health reported that another 18 Rhode Islanders have died from COVID-19, and another 189 residents have tested positive for the virus.
The state death toll now stands at 556, and the number of positive tests now totals 13,571. The state has 254 people hospitalized, 56 in intensive care units, and 41 on ventilators, while 1,047 have been discharged from the hospital.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Department of Health, said the 18 new fatalities include two people in their 50s, two in their 60s, six in their 70s, six in their 80s, and two in their 90s.
Raimondo reminded people that restrictions will remain in place during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. For example, social gatherings remain limited to five people, and people must remain quarantined for 14 days if they leave the state and return to Rhode Island, she said.
“If you find yourself in a back yard or at a barbecue with 20 people, you are not doing the right thing,” she said.
Raimondo said she was “disappointed and surprised” that Connecticut’s two tribal-owned casinos -- Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun -- will open June 1 despite opposition from Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont.
“It’s unfortunate that happened," she said. "It will put us at a bit of a disadvantage.”
But Raimondo said Rhode Island will not be ready to safely open the Twin River casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton by June 1. She said the Rhode Island casinos might be ready to reopen in mid-to-late June or early July, perhaps by appointment only.
“Opening up a casino -- man, you better get that right,” she said. “If that takes us a couple more weeks to get that right, I would much rather be safe than sorry.”
Raimondo also outlined the plans for allowing summer camps to resume on June 29.
She said it’s important for the mental and physical health of young athletes, artists, and dancers to participate in summer camp activities. But, she said, “It won’t look the way it looked last summer. There are gong to be rules.”
For example, groups will be limited to 15 children, drop-off and pickup times will be arranged to avoid large clusters, and rules will emphasize the need for hand washing, hand sanitizer, and wearing face masks, she said.
Summer camp providers will be asked to create a COVID-19 control plans and submit them to the state Department of Human Services, Raimondo said. For more information, go to reopeningri.com.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org