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CORONAVIRUS

As COVID-19 cases skyrocket in R.I., Raimondo may be forced to crack down with more restrictions

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo.Kris Craig/Pool/The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE – As COVID-19 cases have swelled to record levels in Rhode Island over the past month, Governor Gina Raimondo’s strategy for addressing the surge has been less heavy-handed than the one she employed during the first wave of the virus last spring.

Whereas “knock it off” and “shut it down” became Raimondo’s rallying cry to residents in April and May as the state rapidly shuttered schools and workplaces, her tone in recent weeks has come off more as a gentle nudge to try a little harder, and her policy approach has followed suit.

A stay-at-home advisory is in place, but only between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (10:30 p.m. on weekends). Restaurants and recreational facilities like casinos and gyms have been allowed to remain open, with earlier closing times. Retailers are also open, with slight capacity reductions. And social gatherings are limited to 10 people, but the rule is difficult to enforce.

Raimondo’s reluctance so far to enact stronger restrictions and her outright resistance to closing schools reflects the state’s enhanced testing capability, a more nuanced understanding of how the virus spreads, and her desire to keep the economy open.

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But with the spread of the virus showing no signs of slowing, and cities, towns, and school districts beginning to take matters into their own hands, Raimondo may find herself left with no choice but to take stronger action as Thanksgiving approaches.

“The thing that is weighing on me is closing businesses, and I am going to do everything I can to avoid that or put it off as long as possible, but I may not have that option given the trend that we’re on with hospitalizations,” Raimondo said during a WPRI-TV interview on Tuesday.

Rhode Island has averaged 660 new cases a day – including two days of more than 1,000 last week – in November, up from 289 a day in October. The hospitals are admitting 34 new patients a day, and Raimondo has warned that hospitals could run out of beds within a few weeks.

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Raimondo moved her weekly press conference from Wednesday to Thursday this week to give her and her team more time to analyze infection data, review policies set by other states, and meet with leaders of various industries – like restaurants – to discuss next steps.

“At this point I don’t see how we can get to the end of the year without some additional restrictions,” Raimondo said.

Some communities are already taking action.

Providence: Mayor Jorge Elorza announced Tuesday that the city is reducing the social gathering limit to five people, and requiring businesses to obtain permits to hold indoor events with more than 10 people and outdoor events with more than 25 people. He said the businesses will be required to show the city a plan for keeping attendees socially distanced.

Elorza said he believes small social gatherings like backyard parties and larger “super spreader” gatherings are driving the increase in cases across the state.

“More than anything else, as we’re heading into this really strong second wave that’s hitting our state right now, we ask everyone to do what you can to not only keep yourself safe, but by keeping yourself safe, you’re also keeping folks around you, your loved ones and your friends, safe as well,” Elorza said.

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Central Falls: Restaurants are closed for in-person dining until at least Nov. 30.

Schools: Several schools across the state have been forced to move to remote learning as staff members are forced to quarantine, and Cumberland High School intends to keep students home until it receives further guidance from the health department. This week, parents of students at the Achievement First Mayoral Academy learned that the elementary and middle schools will begin remote learning on Nov. 23 and remain home until at least Jan 12.

Raimondo has vehemently opposed moving to full remote learning, suggesting last week that “there is not a shred of evidence” that shows the virus is spreading in schools. But the presidents of Rhode Island’s two teachers' unions have called on Raimondo to implement a “holiday pause” on in-person learning for the rest of the calendar year.

“Rhode Island is experiencing record high number of cases and an overwhelmed Department of Health, despite their best efforts, is falling behind with the required contact tracing that ensures effective quarantining and overall safety of students and educators,” Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said on Monday. “Districts already burdened and stretched thin are not equipped, nor do they have the capacity, to take on this duty.”

The state’s spike reflects a broader national trend. Even as optimism increases about a vaccine being ready by the end of the year, the country is reporting more than 150,000 new cases each day.

While it’s unclear what additional measures Raimondo may take, some experts have expressed support for closing certain businesses.

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Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, tweeted his support Tuesday for Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to close high schools, restaurants, casinos, and movie theaters for several weeks.

“We don’t need national lockdowns,” Jha tweeted. “We need targeted restrictions that minimize risks, keep communities safe.”

Behind the scenes, aides to Raimondo have worked closely with restaurant leaders to avoid a ban on in-person dining.

Rick Simone, who runs the Federal Hill Commerce Association and has functioned as a liaison between restaurants and the Raimondo administration throughout the pandemic, said business owners understand that tougher restrictions are coming, but they hope that decisions will be guided by data in Rhode Island, not national trends.

Simone said restaurateurs worry that they’re the “nearest scapegoats,” even if there’s little evidence to suggest that their establishments are responsible for the increase in cases.

“For the majority of the pandemic, we were a model for the rest of the country,” Simone said.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.