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After closing off from the mainland, Block Island prepares to reopen

With hope and trepidation, locals wonder, Will people come?

Distance markers were painted on the pier walkway at Point Judith for passengers as they boarded the Block Island ferry last week.
Distance markers were painted on the pier walkway at Point Judith for passengers as they boarded the Block Island ferry last week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. -- When the coronavirus spread through Rhode Island three months ago, this community on Block Island sealed itself off to protect its residents from illness.

Now it’s poised to reopen to outsiders, about to go “from zero to 100” for the summer months, as its emergency management director puts it -- advancing with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake.

On Monday, most of the provisions in the town’s emergency order expire and Governor Gina M. Raimondo is allowing more businesses and indoor dining to reopen for the first time since early March.

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So the residents of New Shoreham, many whose livelihoods depend on tourism, are moving ahead, with hope and trepidation: Will people come? Are we ready when they do?

“The challenge we’re at right now is we want to meet the demand. People are starting to come back, people are learning to live with the virus,” said Bill McCombe, the town emergency management co-director and chief of security for the Interstate Navigation Company, which runs the Block Island Ferry. “It’s been awhile, and people are moving from fear of the unknown to how do we live with this in a safe and responsible way?”

They’ve faced hurricanes, but nothing like this.

All of the issues on the mainland -- fears of infection, worries about lost income -- are magnified on Block Island. There’s one grocery store, one doctor at the medical clinic, a handful of police officers, and a town budget with a projected deficit of $800,000 because of a loss of revenue.

“I think we are all resigned that it’s going to be a different summer. We just understand we are in a situation unlike any we’ve had before,” Ken Lacoste, first warden on the New Shoreham Town Council, said recently. “If we can salvage 50 or 60 percent of the summer, it’s not [a] banner year, but trying to cover expenses.”

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Out a dozen miles from the southern coast of Rhode Island, this community of 1,000 or so year-round residents swells to about 10,000 to 20,000 in the peak months of July and August. People fly to the island or pack by the thousands into ferries that regularly cruise back and forth from Rhode Island, and seasonally from New York, Connecticut, and Fall River, Mass.

Lately, there’ve been no crowds on the Block Island Ferry, running out of Narragansett, and it’s unclear what will happen with the ferries from out of state.

They know this is going to be a hard summer for many businesses, and the many residents whose work depends on those businesses. They know some businesses may not survive.

Empty cabanas lined the beach on Block Island last week.
Empty cabanas lined the beach on Block Island last week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“We have 10 weeks to do what everyone else does in 52 weeks. If we have trouble and have to shut down, it’s like every business on the mainland being closed for the year,” said Steven Filippi, owner of popular Ballard’s Inn and president of the Block Island Tourism Council. “We are speaking to the governor and saying, we need help. There’s no profit motive now -- we’re just trying to stay alive.”

All of the special events meant to draw tourists during the slower month of June have been canceled. Summer weddings and large gatherings that filled hotel rooms and banquets are off.

The quarantine restrictions of residents of New York state and New Jersey, as well as international visitors, means fewer visitors will stay in hotels and rent cottages. On the other hand, there’s likely to be fewer foreign workers at hotels and restaurants, and those who do arrive will have to quarantine before they can work.

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From her office at the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, Cindy Lasser can see her husband, ferry boat Captain Paul Svenevik, steering the Block Island Ferry into the dock. There are few passengers these days. On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, usually the unofficial beginning of summer, barely 140 people took the ferry, about 20 percent of the usual ridership.

There were plenty of seats on the Block Island ferry out of Point Judith last week.
There were plenty of seats on the Block Island ferry out of Point Judith last week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

While some businesses are preparing to reopen, the smallest stores are closed because they don’t have enough space for customers under the new restrictions, Lasser said.

“It’s so sad, the stores are so small, so some people are waiting until the next phase to see if it’s easier," she said. "We’re waiting, waiting, waiting.”

All the reasons to visit Block Island are still here -- the open sandy beaches, the trails running through acres of conservation land, the quaint downtown, the picturesque lighthouses, and the heart-stopping natural beauty of the sea and sky.

On Block Island, there is the sense that one can look across to the distant shore and feel as if the problems on the mainland are far away.

But the pandemic has driven home how that sense was always an illusion.

* * *

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After the first Rhode Islanders became sick with the coronavirus in early March, and Governor Gina M. Raimondo ordered a state of emergency, New Shoreham went into a full lockdown.

On the advice of Dr. Mark Clark, the doctor at the time at the Block Island Medical Center, town leaders issued an emergency order restricting travel on and off the island. Everyone had to shelter in place. People coming from the mainland or leaving the island had to quarantine for two weeks. Only essential workers were allowed.

The ferry service went down to one boat per day, mainly as a lifeline to the mainland to bring in food, fuel, and medical supplies, on a schedule that McCombe said he hadn’t seen since 1982.

Delivery trucks pack up after a shipment of goods arrived on the ferry for local delivery on Block Island.
Delivery trucks pack up after a shipment of goods arrived on the ferry for local delivery on Block Island.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“We were more restrictive,” Lacoste said. “[Raimondo] said she understood that ocean communities have to do what they have to do to protect their populations.”

Town officials were afraid of the consequences if they didn’t. The island may be isolated from the mainland, but the people aren’t isolated from each other. This is a community where people hold multiple jobs and serve a variety of roles in town.

And when panic hit the mainland, it spread here, too.

People who own second homes on the island had been quietly arriving, seeking to weather out the pandemic. Police met the ferry each day to make sure people knew to quarantine and checked on about 200 houses owned by people who live in states that were hot spots for COVID-19. Only about a dozen or so had anyone living there, and everyone was complying, said Police Chief Vincent Carlone.

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That didn’t stop some residents from harassing outsiders and threaten to damage the transformers at the Block Island Power Company, the only source of electricity on the island, to keep off-islanders away. Carlone wrote a letter to The Block Island Times, urging people to be kind to one another. He said people were angry with him.

“In 40 years, I’ve seen a lot, and this is the ugliest," Carlone said. "You see the good and the bad clearly in times like this. You can see people trying to help everyone else, and people who are only trying to help themselves.”

The chief saw other consequences of the lockdown: how residents suddenly out of work and children suddenly home from school were struggling. People confided in him about suicidal thoughts, about not having enough food for their families, and the extreme fear of what was happening around them. The town had intended to stop the virus, but the move also exposed the divide between the haves and have-nots, he said.

And in the end, New Shoreham couldn’t keep the virus away. A man who traveled to his apartment in New York before the shutdown ended up getting sick on the island. He apologized to the community in an interview with The Block Island Times.

And the Block Island Grocery, where locals had chuckled about the crazy toilet paper hoarders on the mainland, ended up closing temporarily as workers were tested for the virus.

Johno Sisto, a former town councilor who’s worked at the grocery for years, said he and the other employees buckled down during the closure with curbside service. They recognized their regulars from their orders and wrote little notes to them, wishing them well.

Many businesses on Block Island are anxious to reopen Monday.
Many businesses on Block Island are anxious to reopen Monday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

People were relieved when the store reopened, even with the markings on the floor for social distancing and the monitor at the door limiting the number of customers inside.

“It’s not just a store -- it’s a congregation point for people to stand and chat and see their neighbors,” Sisto said, “and we have to remind them, politely, to move along."

That was the scare that reminded residents about how profoundly the virus could affect their lives. “With that one case, we realized if one of us gets it, this store closes and where do people get their food?" he said.

Town officials pulled together, relying on advice from state health officials and the governor’s office on how to safely reopen, and how to handle an outbreak.

New Shoreham is not “living in a dome,” said McCombe. “We’re at the stage where we have to deal with what we deal with.”

* * *

The Block Island Ferry chugged from cloudy Point Judith in Narragansett with a few dozen passengers early last Wednesday morning, heading across an ocean shrouded in fog. Most of the passengers appeared to be construction workers, instead of tourists, and nearly all wore masks on board.

Blasts from the ship’s horn as the ferry cut through the thick gray fog interrupted announcements for passengers to wear masks, wash their hands, and keep a social distance.

Then the ferry neared Block Island’s Old Harbor, where sunshine sparkled on the water. The island seemed like it was still in mid-April, with few shops open and workers hammering and painting to prepare for the summer tourism.

Jackson Rapoo, sous chef at the Spring House Hotel, adjusted tables and chairs in preparation for opening.
Jackson Rapoo, sous chef at the Spring House Hotel, adjusted tables and chairs in preparation for opening.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At Spring House Hotel, the grand red mansard-roofed hotel that overlooks the ocean from its perch on a hill, Frank DiBiase was feeling optimistic. Workers moved tables on the patio to meet the new space restrictions on outdoor dining. The three acres of gardens that grow the vegetables to feed the guests were planted and growing. He pointed out the rental properties where he could house and quarantine workers when necessary.

Weddings and other events had canceled, but the governor’s go-ahead and her expressed confidence in the economy had given them hope that visitors will follow.

“I think every day, people will feel more confident,” said DiBiase, who is part of the family who owns the hotel. “The weather is getting better, and the positive cases are going down.”

At Ballard’s, where the expansive indoor restaurant and outdoor beach pavilion and cabanas can host about 3,000 people a day, owner Filippi thought he’d be lucky to see about 1,000.

Steven Filippi, president of Ballard's, donned gloves and masks while standing by an empty bar.
Steven Filippi, president of Ballard's, donned gloves and masks while standing by an empty bar.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A function for 100 people planned for July had just canceled. The 10 weddings scheduled for this summer are off. There will be live music, but no dancing. Beach chairs, but no mingling. They didn’t know yet what to do about the outdoor tiki bar.

But his staff was back and eager to work, and he’d hired his own security officers to help enforce social distancing. He had consultants working with state health officials and Rhode Island Commerce to help the business adjust to the new regulations.

Although visitation and tourism spending are projected to be down by 50 percent, they were pinning their hopes on July and August, said Jessica Willi, the executive director at the Block Island Tourism Council.

“Because we took such strict measures a month ago, to be closed in May and not open too early and not mess it up, it could be ok,” Willi said. “There might be some places that don’t make it. Right now, people are positive … everybody is wearing a mask, we’re really trying to follow the rules. It’s going to look a lot different if you visit Block Island, it’ll feel a lot different, but our beaches are beautiful.”

Shops and businesses that were still closed had signs in their windows from ReOpening RI about the measures they were taking to keep staff and customers safe. Some signs urged masks and social distance. A few posted the picture of the Rhode Island Angel of Hope and Strength, designed by artist and RISD graduate Shepard Fairey.

The downtown streets were nearly empty of pedestrians and traffic. When ferries unload thousands of people this summer, businesses and the police hope the visitors will be mindful about wearing masks and keeping their distance.

“The police are not mask enforcers or social-distance enforcers,” Carlone said. “The police are here to help educate people in a sensible way.”

This month will be the test, as the first hotels and restaurants begin to open. The Block Island Ferry will soon have three ships running to the island, half of the usual fleet, but still a move toward normalcy.

The local movie theater with empty displays and a note of humor posted on the marquee.
The local movie theater with empty displays and a note of humor posted on the marquee.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The sign on the marquee at the 130-year-old Empire Theatre groused a little about having to wait for the next phase of reopening:

"Not Showing

A STAR IS BORED

Opening ASAP."


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