PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islanders are partying too much.
State health officials reached that conclusion after analyzing a recent rise in coronavirus cases. So Governor Raimondo on Wednesday announced that she will keep the state in Phase 3 of reopening its economy for another month and lower the cap on social gatherings from 25 to 15.
The state has been seeing a worrisome trend over the past month, following a successful three-month effort to drive down the number of coronavirus cases.
So a Department of Health team conducted an in-depth analysis of 4,000 positive cases, looking for commonalities that would explain the increase, and one conclusion became clear:
“We are partying too much,” Raimondo said. “Social gatherings are too large, and folks aren’t wearing their masks.”
She said health officials traced new cases to a house party with more than 50 people who weren’t wearing masks, a large birthday party in a backyard, a large birthday party in a restaurant, a baby shower, a pool party, and a sports banquet. The analysis found seven to 10 positive cases for each of those parties, she said.
“If you are doing this, I need you to knock it off,” Raimondo said, breaking out her trademark admonition. “People are getting sick, people are dying, and it’s unnecessary.”
She said she understands that it’s summertime and people want to get together to have fun.
“But I have friends now whose loved ones are on ventilators,” Raimondo said. “Your right to have a party should not infringe on their right to live.”
She said the analysis found that people in their 20s are often among those partying without taking precautions. She emphasized that everyone needs to follow health protocols so that businesses can remain open, people can find jobs, and students can return to classrooms in the fall.
The executive order launching Phase 3 of the state’s reopening expired on Wednesday, but Raimondo announced that she was extending Phase 3 through Aug. 28 in large part because of the COVID-19 increase caused by social gatherings.
Raimondo reviewed the metrics for proceeding to the next phase of reopening, saying Rhode Island is doing well by most of those measures. For example, she said the state had plenty of hospital capacity, and new hospitalizations have reached a plateau.
But the rate of COVID-19 transmission remains too high to lift Phase 3 restrictions now, Raimondo said, explaining that the Rt value represents the number of people that one infected person transmits the virus to. For a while, Rhode Island had managed to get the Rt value below 1, but it has risen to 1.3 or 1.4 in recent days and would need to be 1.1 or lower to proceed to the next phase, she said.
“We believe that increase in 100 percent directly attributable to social gatherings that are too large, with no mask wearing and lots of people in close contact,” Raimondo said.
She said it’s clear Rhode Island is not yet ready to move forward to Phase 4 of reopening, but it’s also clear the state does not need to move backward to Phase 2.
Raimondo said she was making one significant change to Phase 3 restrictions by lowering the social gathering limit from 25 to 15.
“So if you are having a birthday party or a baby shower or a pool party or a backyard barbecue or a neighborhood gathering — no more than 15,” she said. “Take it seriously.”
Raimondo said other Phase 3 restrictions remain the same.
For example, restaurants and other indoor settings are limited to two-thirds of capacity, with a limit of 125 people, she said, and outdoor settings for public events are limited at 250 people. The capacity for catered events such as weddings remains at 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.
Those limits are higher than those for social gatherings because people have shown they are more likely to wear masks and maintain social distancing in such settings than they are at parties and informal backyard events, she said.
Also, Raimondo said the state will begin cracking down on overcrowding in bars.
“The grace period is over,” she said, noting that Phase 3 has been going on for a month now. “If you are not following the rules, we are going to shut you down. Period. We have to.”
The biggest problem involves restaurants that have a bar and are allowing crowding around the bar, Raimondo said. “That is how people get sick,” she said.
Under Phase 3 rules, people cannot stand at bars to get drinks; someone has to deliver drinks to seated customers, she said.
The state will begin publishing list of bars and restaurants cited for violations at reopeningri.com, and it will begin highlighting “best practices” by businesses that follow the rules, she said. If people see standing drink service at bars or restaurants, they can call a tip line at (401) 889-5550, she said.
On Wednesday, the Department of Health announced that it has issued compliance orders to 10 restaurants and bars this week for failing to comply with a range of public health directives related to COVID-19.
In many cases, state inspectors saw staff and patrons not wearing masks, staff and patrons not practicing social distancing, and businesses failing to screen patrons for symptoms of COVID-19. Many of the businesses that were issued orders did not meet the requirements for separation at their bar areas, health officials said.
“There are restaurants throughout Rhode Island that are doing a great job welcoming and serving customers in a way that is healthy and safe,” Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said. “The few that are not are hurting the entire industry, jeopardizing the safety of their customers, and setting Rhode Island back in our work to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
A business that receives a compliance order can stay open but will be re-inspected in 10 days to make sure it’s meeting health and safety requirements. A business that receives an immediate compliance order must close right away, Some businesses receive a combination that allows them to stay open with bar areas closed.
Health officials issued an immediate compliance order to Tafino Restaurant and Lounge, in Providence, and they issued compliance orders to Theater Tap Bar, in Pawtucket; Pasha Hookah Lounge and Bar, in Providence; Boulevard Grille and Cigar Lounge, in Pawtucket.
Also, health officials issued partial immediate compliance orders to PJs Pub, in Narragansett, and Morse Tavern, in Coventry, and they issued a combination of compliance orders and immediate compliance orders to Buffalo Wild Wings, in Warwick; Fairlawn Golf Course, in Lincoln; O’Rourke’s Bar and Gill, in Warwick; and Lifestyle Nutrition, in Providence.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health had reported 119 new cases, marking the largest single-day total since May 29, with at least 100 new infections on five days over the past week. And 3.2 percent of tests were positive on Tuesday, marking the highest single-day rate since June 10.
By Wednesday, those numbers had come down: The Department of Health reported 61 new cases, two deaths, and a 1.8 percent positive test rate.
In all, 74 people were hospitalized with the virus on Wednesday, 12 were in intensive care, and six were on ventilators, and the three-day average of people hospitalized stood at 72.
Since March 1, the state has seen 18,800 cases of the virus, and 1,007 Rhode Islanders have died.
Officials are watching coronavirus data closely as they near a decision on whether students will return to classrooms in the fall.
Raimondo has said she wants all public schools to reopen on Aug. 31, although she and Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green have said they’ll allow health officials to make the final decision. The state will likely announce its plan for schools the week of Aug. 17.
Rhode Island would not be talking about reopening classrooms if it had infection rates like those seen in states such as Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Raimondo said. But Rhode Island’s experience with child care centers and summer camps has shown that such steps can be taken safely, she said.
“The question is: What is it going to take to make it safe?” Raimondo said.
For one thing, before schools can reopen, the state will need to ensure that it can provide test results within two or three days, she said. Amid a national surge in coronavirus cases and testing, test results have been taking a week or longer.
Raimondo said officials will be analyzing statewide data and looking at how prepared each city or town is to reopen schools. “We know Central Falls, for example, is in a very different place than many other communities,” she said of the city with the state’s highest COVID-19 rate.
In answering questions from reporters, Raimondo said everyone in schools will be required to wear face masks. “This is something we are hearing from a lot of teachers,” she said. “They would feel safer if the children had to wear masks. Teachers have to be safe and feel safe.”
Some children might not be developmentally able to wear masks, and schools should have extra masks on hand for students, Raimondo said. “But the bottom line is everyone in school should be masked.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org