NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — Earlier this year, as states went into lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Block Islanders worried whether their summer tourism season could be saved.
Now they are scrambling to get a handle on a season that seems to be spiraling out of their control.
“Back in March, we didn’t know what to expect. We thought we wouldn’t have a season, then we thought maybe we could salvage the season,” said Ken Lacoste, first warden of the Town Council of New Shoreham, the town on the island. “Then word got out it was a safe place to be.” Block Island has had just eight cases of COVID-19.
In any other time, a summer of flawless hot weather and the resulting boom in tourism would be welcomed. However, as restrictions have made life tense on the mainland, the strain is magnified on Block Island, as thousands of tourists have descended here.
And the islanders say they are seeing a much different crowd than usual.
First, the recent on-again, off-again quarantine restrictions that Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey imposed on Rhode Islanders caused a flurry of cancellations from out-of-staters who would have had to quarantine when they returned home. Older people didn’t want to travel, and state officials throughout the Northeast encouraged residents to stay local.
That left young people: fearless, restless from lockdowns, and restricted by coronavirus rules at the mainland’s public beaches. They began discovering Block Island, which has no density limits at its beaches or beach parking lots.
There was also “the dynamics of what’s going on nationally,” said Lacoste. “There seems to be a lack of respect for authority. We haven’t had it to this degree. This is over the top.”
Public drinking and partying on the beaches, vandalism and disrespect of others, and a free-for-all of cars, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians in the small commercial area has stressed the island’s easygoing nature, locals say.
People on mopeds zip along dirt roads, where they’re banned; ride on sidewalks, where they dodge walkers; and blare their horns in a way that’s “like nails on a chalkboard for islanders,” Lacoste said.
Their selfies and videos of wild times on Block Island are posted on social media, drawing more young crowds and the kind of publicity islanders want to avoid.
Last week, two young tourists were killed in separate crashes on the island. A 16-year-old boy from Connecticut died last Monday when the vehicle in which he was a passenger struck a utility pole; the teenage girl who was behind the wheel was charged with drunken driving. On Saturday, a 22-year-old Cranston man died and his passenger was injured after their rental moped struck an SUV head-on.
This is a lot for a small town with a just handful of police officers. Its volunteer fire and rescue squad has one-third fewer members this summer because so many declined to serve because of the pandemic.
‘The island is being flooded by tourists with vacation mentality who congregate, drink, and appear to forget that we are in the middle of [a] pandemic. Block Island, its residents, and town government are overwhelmed right now.’
New Shoreham Town Council
On Sunday night, town councilors held an emergency meeting to address the spate of crashes and numerous complaints about mopeds. When they continued the meeting Monday, they announced that the State Police had agreed to send more troopers for weekend patrols to crack down on all traffic violations, and Superintendent Colonel James Manni said he will go to the island as well.
“He assured me will make every effort to curtail mischievous behavior and bad driving on the island,” Lacoste said.
The owners of moped rental businesses also reached out to the council, Lacoste said, a discussion that will continue at the council meeting Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a petition is circulating online asking state legislators to enact tougher licensing standards for mopeds and to name the bill in honor of Corey Sanville, the young man who died on Saturday. (No motorcycle license is required to operate 50cc mopeds.)
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This is an old story here: Over the past four decades, the battle to control moped rentals has gone to the courthouse and the State House — and even led to talk of seceding from Rhode Island.
This was the third time the council tried to tackle the problems this summer has brought. On Wednesday, members voted 3 to 1 to suspend outdoor entertainment licenses. That affected 25 hotels and restaurants, whether they host rock bands or two sisters with a ukulele.
Furious over the abrupt action, five of those businesses filed a complaint Friday at Washington County Superior Court, saying the vote happened without notice and without the opportunity for them to be heard. They asked for a temporary restraining order to stop the ban.
“Most people are disgusted with the decision,” said Steve Filippi, the owner of the popular Ballard’s Inn, who joined the lawsuit along with the Spring House Hotel, Mahogany Shoals, the National Hotel, and Aldo’s Restaurant and Pizza.
The Town Council objected to the complaint on Monday, arguing to the court that they were acting in the interest of public health and welfare because “the situation is out of hand.”
“The island is being flooded by tourists with vacation mentality who congregate, drink, and appear to forget that we are in the middle of [a] pandemic,” the councilors said. “Block Island, its residents, and town government are overwhelmed right now -- visitors are not doing what they are supposed to be doing in terms of following the governor’s orders, wearing masks and social distancing. The medical center is overtaxed; the Town does not have enough ambulances. . . . Officials on the island are trying to enforce the governor’s orders, but the Town does not have the resources do so.”
On Monday, Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini sided with town officials and kept the ban on outdoor entertainment in place.
So business owners are scrambling to adjust their entertainment plans with just three weeks left in the season. They believe they’re being used as a scapegoat for a problem they say is more complex.
“Every business on Block Island is complying with the rules and regulations,” Filippi said. “It’s extremely important for us to have outdoor entertainment. Business is down 40 to 50 percent. We’re barely surviving.”
The previous weekend, Ballard’s had hosted a free Reggae Fest that drew throngs of people to the beach concert. On Friday afternoon, the outdoor stages on the beach were empty, and a band played ‘80s covers inside the restaurant.
“It’s not safe. People should be outside enjoying music,” Filippi said. “If there is an outbreak, the Town Council will be responsible.”
The ban exposed a bigger rift in town over what to do about Summer 2020.
“I am a hundred percent positive that there are people who support this decision,” said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council. “I know there are locals who don’t think the Town Council is doing enough — ‘we need our island back, we want to send our kids to school.’
“The issue they are trying to solve is this crowding issue. It’s sort of a way to make Block Island less appealing,” she added. “It’s my opinion that this not going to solve it.”
Even the police chief isn’t convinced this will solve the problems.
“I understand the town is grasping at straws to deal with what’s going on, but I don’t know if that’s the solution,” said Chief Vincent Carlone. “I think there’s a better way to handle it.”
Carlone wants to call state child welfare authorities on parents who allow their children under 18 to come to the island unsupervised. He’d also like the town to hire traffic cops to hand out tickets. That’s not likely this year, as the town faces a projected deficit of $800,000 from the loss of tourism-related revenue.
“What we have to hope for is this year is an anomaly, and we will get the families back on Block Island,” Carlone said.
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With its 17 miles of beautiful beaches and designation by The Nature Conservancy as one of 12 “Last Great Places” in the western hemisphere, Block Island would appear to be the perfect getaway during a pandemic.
Just about a thousand people live here full-time, but summers swell the town’s population by 15,000 to 20,000 people a day.
This is a town laid out during horse-and-buggy days, as the police chief points out, with narrow, winding streets and a tiny commercial district by the ferry docks.
In summer, thousands arrive on the ferries each day, crowding the tiny downtown. Many rent bicycles and mopeds to buzz around the narrow streets and over to the beaches, or stroll to check out the tiny boutiques and souvenir shops.
For a town that’s managed to keep its positive coronavirus cases in single digits, the usual bustle of summer tourism has made locals worried about an outbreak.
“The town just isn’t set up for this kind of pandemic response,” said Willi of the tourism council.
The ferries and the town are blanketed with signs appealing to people to respect social distances and wear masks. Compliance seems to wane as the day wears on and visitors start drinking. The early ferries limit capacity to 50 percent to cut down on the number of day trippers. But the afternoon and evening ferries back to the mainland are crowded, and people often remove their masks when they take in the salt-air breezes above deck.
“Boats aren’t made for social distancing,” said Bill McCombe, the town emergency management co-director and chief of security for the Interstate Navigation Company, which runs the Block Island Ferry. “What people need to do is be respectful of each other. It’s simple to wear a mask, it’s an easy thing to do. But in general, we all need to be respectful of each other during the pandemic.”
A spokeswoman for the governor said Friday that the state would increase inspectors on the ferries. State police officials have sent troopers to help the small police force on weekends. The state Department of Business Regulation has regularly inspected local businesses and, for the most part, found them in compliance.
Yet Governor Gina M. Raimondo acknowledged Wednesday that “Block Island isn’t doing well.”
Hours after her comments, councilors wrestled with what to do. Residents were complaining about the crowds. The volunteer rescue squad was stressed from responding to medical calls and crashes.
Council member Martha Ball proposed pulling all of the outdoor entertainment licenses, making an exception for weddings.
“The state is not helping us,” Ball said to the other council members. “I understand what the governor is trying to do, but it’s not working out here. We’ve had a summer where it’s gone wild, probably because people have been cooped up for a long time.”
Second Warden André Boudreau agreed. ”It’s crowds and bars that are the most dangerous things, the biggest spreaders of this disease,” he said. “The governor has allowed this [outdoor entertainment] because she’s pro-business, but we’ve seen what happens. What happens on Block Island doesn’t happen in Providence, Cranston, Johnston, and other places.”
Council member Sven Risom wondered about the impact on businesses that were following the rules, before ultimately siding with the majority.
Council member Chris Willi abstained; he owns Captain Nick’s, which has an outdoor entertainment license. (He is married to Jessica Willi of the tourism council.)
Boudreau also said he would welcome the governor’s help in ridding the island of mopeds.
John Leone, owner of the Old Harbor Bike Shop, has heard that before. “Every year it’s the same story --July and August gets very busy out here,” Leone said. “This year, it’s the COVID, the pandemic, people are uptight about everything. They thought it was going to be a quiet year, and it’s been a great year.”
Still, after talking with the police, Leone and the other moped operator on the island hired two security officers to be out and about in the island’s commercial district, focusing on moped drivers who weren’t following the rules. Leone said the security officers turn away about 180 mopeds a day from attempting to drive up High Street to the Mohegan Bluffs. Leone also bought a breathalyzer to check customers suspected of drinking and has already had to use it.
He’s seeing many young customers, especially Rhode Islanders, discovering Block Island for the first time. “Now they have a taste of it, and they’ll keep coming back,” Leone said. “They’re nice people. They just need to be put under control.”
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Lacoste, the first warden on the council, voted against pulling the licenses. Most of the venues weren’t causing problems, he said, and the issue of unruly crowds needs a more comprehensive solution.
Summer is waning, but with the school year delayed in Rhode Island, it’s possible that the crowds will continue to visit Block Island. And everyone from town officials to the local tourism industry are feeling the pressure to do something. “We should sit down as friends and neighbors and work it out,” said Filippi of Ballard’s.
On Saturday afternoon, Jessica Willi was on the phone with a Globe reporter when a wailing ambulance rushed by her to the island’s only medical center. She found out later it was coming from the fatal moped crash.
“Something’s got to give. This is about more than the outdoor licenses,” Willi said Sunday. “Everybody wants to blame somebody, and it’s a really sad time.”