PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo is reducing the state’s limit on social gatherings from 25 people to 15 and extending Phase 3 of the state’s reopening for another month, rather than moving into Phase 4.
After a successful three-month battle to dramatically shrink the number of coronavirus cases in the state, new infections have risen gradually over the past month, a worrying trend that could threaten the governor’s plan to reopen school buildings Aug. 31.
Since July 5, when state health officials recorded a three-day average of 26 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, that rolling average has ticked up and stood at 91 cases Tuesday. The state Department of Health also reported 119 new cases, the largest single-day total since May 29, with at least 100 new infections on five days over the past week.
By Wednesday, the number of new cases had dropped to 61, but Raimondo said the numbers are concerning.
“We’re partying too much,” Raimondo declared during a press conference. She said the state has been able to trace multiple coronavirus cases to gatherings in backyards and restaurants in recent weeks.
Since March 1, Rhode Island has had 18,800 cases of the virus, and 1,007 residents have died. It already is likely to be the third-leading cause of death in the state in 2020, behind only heart disease and cancer.
The recent rise in infections came after more than a month of stability that saw new first-time positive cases drop to just 18 on June 28. That’s a dramatic decrease from the state’s highest case count of 420 back on April 23.
Rhode Island recorded fewer than 100 new cases a day for 41 consecutive days starting June 11 before returning to triple digits on July 21 when it reported 107 cases. The seven-day average is 91.
Another leading indicator of the upward trend is the rate of positive test results. State officials have long pointed to that rate as a key indicator because the number of tests administered on any day can vary widely. On Tuesday, 3.2 percent of tests were positive, the highest single-day rate since June 10.
The positive test rate fell below 2 percent on Wednesday, but Raimondo said the health department is closely monitoring the state’s basic reproduction number, which is designed to explain how the virus spreads once a person is infected. Raimondo said the state wants a reproduction number of 1.1 or lower, but it has ticked up in recent days.
“We believe that that increase is 100 percent attributable to social gatherings that are too large,” Raimondo said.
Like other states, Rhode Island has relaxed some of its restrictions on shops, restaurants, and other businesses to allow the economy to gradually reopen. Raimondo and other state leaders have urged residents to avoid large crowds — especially at beaches — but Wednesday’s decision to reduce the limit on social gatherings to 15 was the first large-scale restriction that has been changed.
Despite the increase in cases, hospital admissions have remained relatively stable, with 74 residents were hospitalized with the virus as of Wednesday. There were 12 patients in intensive care, and six were on ventilators.
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. School districts have submitted plans to the state for a full reopening, partial reopening, and a scenario where all students continue distance learning.
Infante-Green said last week that the state will likely announce its plan for schools the week of Aug. 17.