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Rhode Island failed to use minority contractors for $34 million in field hospital work

Rhode Island field hospital inside a former Lowe's building in North Kingstown. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
Rhode Island field hospital inside a former Lowe's building in North Kingstown. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s administration spent $34 million to build and equip field hospitals in response to the coronavirus pandemic without providing a dime for minority contractors, a situation that Latino and Black leaders called “inconceivable,” “disappointing,” and “unacceptable.”

State law requires that minority business enterprises must receive at least 10 percent of the dollar value of state purchases and construction projects. But because of the urgency of the public health crisis, the administration waived that requirement in order to award contracts quickly.

However, state Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat, said there are hundreds of minority businesses on the state’s master list of vendors.

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“It is inconceivable that not even one was worthy of consideration,” Cano said. “For me, it was unacceptable.”

It’s especially disappointing, she said, because the outbreak has had a disproportionate impact on Latino and Black Rhode Islanders.

Latinos make up 16 percent of the state population but 45 percent of COVID-19 cases, while Blacks/African-Americans make up 6 percent of the state but 13 percent of the cases, according to the latest state Department of Health data. Those figures exclude cases where demographic information is unknown.

To prepare for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases, Rhode Island transformed three locations around the state into field hospitals -- a former Citizens Bank building in Cranston, a former Lowe’s store in North Kingstown, and the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence.

“The urgent need to set up these hospitals was unquestionable, and the skilled team assembled was able to set up these facilities in a matter of weeks,” Amanda Clarke, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration, said. “The administration had to move as quickly as possible to ensure we had the space and tools to protect Rhode Islanders.”

Clarke also said the federal government was pressuring states to develop the capacity to handle any future COVID-19 surges.

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The state awarded the emergency contracts to Dimeo Construction Co. as the construction manager and to AECOM for hiring and overseeing the architectural and engineering firm New England Medical Design, she said. Other costs included rent, supplies, and security, with total costs estimated at $34 million, she said.

Rhode Island State Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat
Rhode Island State Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket DemocratJames Kegley

Dimeo and New England Medical Design are based in Rhode Island, and while AECOM is based in Los Angeles, it has a “significant office” in Rhode Island, Clarke said. Dimeo used four federally recognized women-owned businesses as subcontractors: Sitecon Corp., Shea Painting, SOS, and Frontline, she said.

Jhonny Leyva, president of the Black Contractors Association of Rhode Island, said he found it “very disappointing” that no minority contractors were hired to do any of the field hospital work.

It would be one thing, he said, if minority contractors bid for the work and lost out, but he said he knows of no minority contractors that were notified of the opportunity. He said the 10 percent requirement should be even higher since the state’s total minority population is more than double that percentage.

“Going forward, everything needs to be by the book,” Leyva said.

Oscar Mejias, CEO of the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said many Latino-owned businesses are struggling to survive amid the pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown.

“So this kind of decision is like a death sentence for them,” he said.

Many minority-owned businesses have experience with government contracts, and they would have been ready and able to move quickly to do the field hospital work, Mejia said.

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“Just because we are in an emergency is not an excuse,” he said.

The Latino population is facing an emergency of its own, he said, noting Latinos account for 45 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases.

Going forward, he said he hopes the state will turn to minority contractors to help dismantle the field hospitals when the pandemic ends, and he hopes the state will make up for leaving out minority contractors for this project it by exceeding the 10 percent threshold for future projects.

Clarke said the Raimondo administration plans to follow standard procurement procedures, rather than emergency procedures, in maintaining and taking down the field hospitals. “We are in the process of returning to the normal course of business,” she said.

Cano raised the issue during a meeting of the Joint Legislative COVID-19 Emergency Spending Task Force late Tuesday afternoon, saying, “The fact that there were zero dollars awarded to minority business enterprises is concerning to me.” She asked what the administration plans to do moving forward.

Department of Administration Director Brett P. Smiley said, “We remain disappointed we weren’t able to include (minority business) participation in the construction, but nevertheless are committed to enforcing that provision on future work.”

In March, the state faced “very scary” projections about how quickly traditional hospitals might fill up with COVID-19 patients, he said. “Thankfully, the immediacy of that crisis has passed," he said, and the state won’t waive minority business requirements when, for example, the field hospitals are “demobilized.”

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Representative Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat, called for the administration to stop waiving requirements and to ensure that minority-owned businesses benefit from further spending in response to the outbreak.

“You have failed — failed with a capital F-minus — when it came to the community of color during this COVID-19 pandemic,” she told Smiley.

Senate Finance Committee Chair William J. Conley Jr., an East Providence Democrat, suggested that the administration might increase the proportion of minority business participation in future pandemic-related projects "so that we get to the 10 percent total within those expenditures.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.