PROVIDENCE -- Governor Gina M. Raimondo unveiled a $7 million program during Friday’s news conference to help residents who are facing eviction during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The public health crisis has led to an economic crisis,” Raimondo said. While there hasn’t been a massive spike in evictions during the pandemic, people are struggling to pay their rent, she said.
“I am worried as the $600 benefit from the federal government ends and the economic crisis drags on, this is a crisis that’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Raimondo said.
A new initiative called Safe Harbor Housing Program will launch next week to help tenants and landlords find an alternative to the eviction process in the courts, with informal mediation that provides some relief, the governor said. The program was developed with the United Way of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island judiciary.
Starting Monday, renters who meet the income criteria and are behind on their rent because of COVID-19 can qualify for assistance. Renters and landlords can apply to the program through the United Way, by calling 211.
Both parties must agree to take part, Raimondo said, and they will be able to finalize a payment agreement. Tenants in need of legal advice can access free legal services.
Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island, said earlier that this program will be important. ”We were in a housing crisis before COVID,” she said Friday morning. “If we don’t do more to assist with eviction prevention, we’re going to have an eviction pandemic.”
The rental assistance announcement comes as the state Department of Health reports two more deaths and 45 new cases of COVID-19, raising the death toll in Rhode Island to 976 fatalities and 17,312 positive cases.
A person in their 50s and another in their 70s were the recent deaths, said Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.
There are 61 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including four in intensive care and five on ventilators.
Wednesday was the first day that nursing homes and assisted living facilities could welcome visitors, but some facilities are taking more time to prepare for safe visits, Alexander-Scott said.
“Do the simple things that are required to keep our friends and neighbors safe,” Raimondo said, urging Rhode Islanders to wear face masks, wash their hands frequently, and maintain social distances.
Rhode Island is one of a few states that is seeing declines in COVID-19 infections. Raimondo credited the state’s efforts for contact tracing and testing.
Alexander-Scott said the state’s goal is to “continue to be strategic” in testing, such as testing people with symptoms and responding to outbreaks, and testing people who don’t have symptoms but work in high-risk and high-contact professions.
The data is showing a steady and consistent decline in hospitalizations, she said.
However, there are two paths ahead for Rhode Island, she said. If the state continues to be careful, the decline should continue. If residents begin to relax their cooperation with mask-wearing and social distancing, it’s likely that the virus will resurge -- and, Raimondo said, she will impose restrictions.
That would be based on geography and setting, depending on what is causing the outbreak, she later clarified. If there are people congregating at bars or at beaches, the state would move to close them.
“I’d like to think at this point we’re sophisticated” to comply with the rules around the coronavirus, she said.
Staff writer Dan McGowan contributed to this report.