PROVIDENCE — Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Friday tightened the limits on social gatherings, banned spectators at youth sports, limited visits at hospitals and nursing homes, and closed hockey rinks and indoor sport facilities to try to curb an alarming spread of the coronavirus.
Raimondo said she is determined to keep students in school instead of moving to all-virtual learning, because “it’s highly likely that letting them out of school will exacerbate our COVID problems.” To avoid hindering the already-struggling economy, the state will offer $5 million in grants for businesses to provide hardware, software, and Internet access to help their employees work from home, she announced.
Exactly four months after moving Rhode Island’s economy into Phase 3 of reopening, the governor said she is trying to avoid having to shut down the state’s economy, and minimize strain on the hospital system.
Hospitalizations have tripled in the last few weeks, and Rhode Island has had several consecutive days with more than 400 new cases of COVID-19. If the state stays on this trajectory, she said, Rhode Island will have to open a 300-bed field hospital in Cranston in a few weeks.
“We are so connected to one another, and if we have to open up the Cranston field hospital, chances are you will know somebody who’s there. If we have to start closing down restaurants and businesses again, you’re going to know somebody who loses their job,” Raimondo said during Friday’s news conference. “In contrast, if we follow these new rules and seriously dial back our informal social gatherings ... and wear a mask, I feel confident that we’ll turn the tide on this one.”
Raimondo said she’s speaking with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont about coordinated restrictions that could be announced on Thursday.
Raimondo didn’t rule out the possibility that Rhode Island may have to go back to Phase 2 restrictions. The goal right now: “Stay on target as much as possible, and limit commerce as little as possible," she said. "Too many people are struggling and businesses are hanging on by a thread, if at all.”
Structured environments — like schools, offices, and local business — are not the problem, she said. The virus is spreading through casual social gatherings with friends, family, and coworkers, where people are relaxed and not wearing masks.
“Transmission is happening when we’re comfortable, when we’re informal, and when we’re with people we know,” Raimondo said.
She offered several recent examples: A group of 15 teachers who went out to dinner together recently and all ended up quarantined. The20 or so students in Middletown who threw a party last week that led to a dozen people testing positive for COVID-19, with more test results pending.
That one party has affected four school districts, and now a team of epidemiologists is tracing the contacts of the teens at the party, which could lead to quarantine for hundreds of people, Raimondo said.
The virus is also spreading among athletes and spectators at sporting events. There have been 96 cases linked to sports, and those cases led to more than 970 people needing to quarantine “and that number is still climbing,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state’s health director.
While the virus is spreading faster among people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, those who end up hospitalized or dying from the virus are those in their 60s and older, indicating that risks taken by younger people are having devastating effects on the elderly and other vulnerable populations.
Before Friday, social gatherings were supposed to be limited to a maximum of 25 people. But over the last two months, gatherings that have sparked infections have had an average of 25 attendees, Alexander-Scott said, and many have had more.
“We really need to cut back,” Alexander-Scott said.
Attendees who have tested positive have been reluctant to tell contact tracers about the size of the parties or have refused to answer questions, making it much more difficult for health officials to contain the virus, she said.
Raimondo said her decision to lower the limit on social circles to 10 people and require masks for any gatherings with people not living in the same household was based on factors like these.
The state police patrols will be tripled this Halloween weekend, with orders to find and shut down parties and establishments that are flouting the social gathering limits, she said. She said the state will issue $500 fines to those who host gatherings above the 10-person limit, and she is ordering stores to tell customers they have to wear masks, because state regulators will be “aggressive” with businesses that are lax.
Spectators are banned from youth sports for the next two weeks. A third of the youth sports cases have been associated with hockey, so rinks and indoor sports facilities will be closed for a week, starting Monday. The state will work with owners of the facilities to develop new requirements to prevent spread of COVID-19.
Raimondo is asking houses of worship to offer or “strongly encourage” virtual services for their parishioners. She is also scaling back visitation at hospitals and nursing homes for two weeks, starting next week. While visits won’t be banned, the governor said that the nursing homes and health officials will have to come up with “the right balance between what is humane and necessary" and avoiding outbreaks.
The new cases and percent-positive rate continue to climb. Rhode Island hit 32,874 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, after adding 482 new cases, according to Friday’s data from the state Department of Health.
The most recent overall daily test-positive rate was 3.3 percent, inching above the weekly rate of 2.9 percent. Six more Rhode Islanders died from the virus, raising the death toll to 1,201. There are 152 hospitalized, with 15 people in intensive care and nine on ventilators.
“I know there’s fatigue, I know there’s anger, I know there’s frustration. I know everything I said is probably not that popular, but I can’t change the virus," Raimondo said. "All we can do each in our daily lives is live in a more-disciplined way and save a life.”