PROVIDENCE — With Rhode Islanders packing beaches in the summer heat, Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Wednesday warned that Rhode Island is “not immune” from the coronavirus surges seen in other states.
“Do not let your guard down,” Raimondo said. “We are not even halfway through this fight.”
To try to keep the virus at bay, the governor said she will limit parking lot capacity to 25 percent at the Scarborough and Misquamicut state beaches. The lots had been at 75 percent of capacity. Also, she said the state will step up enforcement of rules requiring face masks and social distancing.
“We are struggling to keep the crowds under control at the beaches,” Raimondo said.
Even with parking capacity limited, Rhode Island beaches saw 50,000 more cars last month than at the same time last year, she said. And last weekend, the state received reports of numerous social distancing and face mask scofflaws at the beaches, particularly people in their 20s.
“It got out of control last weekend,” Raimondo said. “I’m hearing from far too many businesses that often young employees are getting harassed by patrons who are cranky about keeping social distance or wearing a mask. You shouldn’t have to deal with that.”
So the state will place parking limits on those two popular beaches while also stepping up enforcement to ensure that beach-goers take health precautions and don’t park illegally on surrounding roads. Temperatures are predicted to be in the 90s this weekend.
“I’m sorry that we have to do this, but it’s necessary,” Raimondo said.
The governor said she understands the desire of Ocean State residents to hit the beach. “I get it,” she said. “Vacations have been canceled. Everyone has been stuck in the house. Lots of summer camps are still canceled. You don’t know what to do with your kids. It’s 90 degrees. It’s time to go to the beach.”
But if people are going to go to the shore, they must wear face masks when using the restroom, going to the concession stand, or gathering on pavilions in groups.
If people continue to flout those rules, the state could see the virus surge as it has in other states, Raimondo warned. For example, she said, Florida saw the number of COVID-19 cases double in 15 days, Arizona saw a 300 percent increase in cases in June, and Texas saw its hospitalizations double in just 14 days.
“The point is: This changes quickly,” Raimondo said.
And if a similar surge hits Rhode Island, the governor said she will be forced to clamp down and close parts of the economy that have reopened since the pandemic began.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health reported 102 new cases of COVID-19, marking the first time since June 10 that the state reported at least 100 new infections, and the 3.5 percent positive test rate was the highest since the end of May.
By Wednesday, the numbers were back down: The state reported 52 new cases, the positive test rate was down to 1.8 percent, and Raimondo said Rhode Island remains “in a good place” relative to other states.
But, she said, “If we let our guard down, we are going to see a surge. That’s not my opinion. That is just a fact. This virus is lurking with us and will be every day until we have a widely available vaccine.”
Raimondo warned that while the statewide positive test rate is back under 2 percent, 7 percent of Rhode Islanders in their 20s are testing positive, and she said that too many people in that age bracket are congregating at beaches while ignoring face mask and social distance rules.
“You guys got to do better,” she said. “I know it’s summer. I know you want to party. I know you want to go to the beach. I know you want to go out.”
But she said a resurgence in the virus would make it harder for people to return to work, for businesses to reopen, and for students to return to school.
Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said it’s crucial that Rhode Islanders remain vigilant.
“We are absolutely seeing social gatherings as a source of these new cases, whether on the beach where people are close together and not masking, or on boats, at home, and other places,” she said. “We have to address this together with kindness and consideration.”
On Wednesday, the Department of Health reported that two more Rhode Islanders had died of COVID-19, bringing the state death toll to 987. The 52 new cases brought the total number of positive tests to 17,640. A total of 59 people are hospitalized with the virus, five are in intensive care, and three are on ventilators, the state reported.
Alexander-Scott announced that Rhode Island will launch a second round of serology testing to see how many people have coronavirus antibodies in their blood. The testing will give health officials a better understanding of how prevalent the virus is in the state, she said. Rhode Island is one of just three sites in the country doing this round of testing, along with Detroit and New York City, she said.
Also, Raimondo provided details of her plan to use federal coronavirus relief funding to help small businesses.
She announced that $50 million will be made available to support small businesses that were “hit hardest” by the pandemic, such as restaurants, caterers, and other businesses with 20 or fewer employees. Grants of up to $15,000 will go to businesses that can show they have lost significant portions of their revenue in past few months, she said.
Raimondo said 20 percent of the funds will be set aside for minority-owned businesses.
If the initial $50 million goes quickly, that can be replenished with additional federal funds, she said. “This is a first step. This isn’t it. This is the beginning.”
Raimondo announced that another $26 million in federal stimulus money will be made available for “critical small business support services,” including nonprofit grants, technical assistance to businesses, and a “repositioning program” to help change business models.
“We have heard a lot from small businesses that, yes, they need some money to keep the lights on, but they also need a hand to adjust their business model for this new economy — how to sell things online, how to allow people to work from home,” she said.
Raimondo announced that another $20 million will be made available from the Small Business Development Fund that the General Assembly authorized last year, and the state is working with federal Economic Development Administration to provide $5 million to help the state’s tourism industry.
Raimondo had criticized the Small Business Development Fund when it was proposed last year, but she said it has been transformed into a program that can help small businesses hurt by the coronavirus outbreak.
With all those funding sources are combined, Raimondo said the result is that $100 million will “quickly go out the door to small businesses.”
But the applications won’t be available online for a couple of weeks, she said, adding that the “framework” for the funding would be posted later Wednesday at commerceri.com.