PROVIDENCE – “It’s gonna suck.”
That was the message Governor Gina Raimondo delivered to Rhode Island residents Thursday as she announced that the state will attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19 with a “two-week pause” beginning Nov. 30, which includes closing gyms and casinos, asking most high school students to learn from home, and ordering companies to have most employees work from home.
More immediately, Raimondo said the state has lowered social gathering limits to individual households, which effectively means that residents should not spend any time around people who they don’t live with, including for Thanksgiving.
Raimondo said Rhode Island is at crucial point in the pandemic because hospitals are currently at 97 percent capacity for their COVID-specific beds, and the state will likely need to open field hospitals in Cranston and at the Rhode Island Convention Center in the coming weeks. But even with more beds, Raimondo said, staffing will be an issue, and hospitals could be forced to turn away patients for screening and diagnostic services and pivot to “crisis standards” of care.
“The six weeks before us will be the hardest yet of this crisis,” Raimondo said during her weekly press conference.
The new restrictions came as the Department of Health announced 921 new infections, and four more deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 1,288 since March 1. There were 288 residents in the hospital.
Rhode Island has watched cases rise rapidly in November, averaging 721 new cases a day during the month. By comparison, the state averaged 289 cases a day in October.
Taking an unusually pessimistic tone, Raimondo acknowledged that residents have been forced to wait too long for tests and the state is struggling with contact tracing, although she said the goal is to double the numbers of tests offered by the first week of December and she is continuing to hire workers to assist with tracking cases. She urged those who test positive to begin calling their contacts themselves if possible, rather than wait for the state to do so.
She said the two-week pause is designed to slow the spread and provide some relief to hospitals, but she warned that a full lockdown could be on the way the state doesn’t see better results by Dec. 13.
“I’ll own these decisions, which aren’t easy,” Raimondo said. “But I feel it’s the only option that we have right to save as many lives as we can.”
One area where the state is taking minimal action is with schools.
Raimondo is recommending that high schools limit their in-person learning capacity to 25 percent, with the rest of the students participating in remote learning from home. She offered no recommendations for elementary and middle schools, repeating once again that she doesn’t see “a shred of evidence” that schools are responsible for the spread of the virus.
Earlier in the week, the state’s teachers’ unions called on Raimondo to implement a “holiday pause” on in-person learning for the rest of 2021. The Achievement First Mayoral Academy, a high-performing charter school whose workforce is not unionized, has already announced that students won’t return to class until January.
Raimondo’s new restrictions require that bars close beginning Nov. 30, and limits restaurants to 33 percent capacity with a one household-per-table requirement. But that means that restaurants can remain open for Thanksgiving and the night after Thanksgiving, which is typically one of the busiest nights of the year in the service industry.
Behind the scenes, restaurant groups spent the week lobbying the Raimondo administration to not consider a full lock down of restaurants before Thanksgiving. Rick Simone, who represents the Ocean State Coalition, issued a statement asking for support from the public.
“There were no easy choices on how to move forward and the current outcome of new restrictions is not what we hoped for and is going to be incredibly hard on our restaurants and small businesses,” Simone said. “We also realize that not all businesses will be able to function with these restrictions. However we need to all come together and support each other through the two weeks of these tough restrictions. Our restaurants are safe and we need the public’s confidence with dining in, eating outside, gift cards, takeout and delivery.”
Raimondo said she will announce a new round of stimulus for businesses and support for low-income households affected by the two-week pause next week.
Raimondo’s restrictions don’t go quite as far as some other states, like Michigan, which has closed high schools and shuttered restaurants for the time being. Asked if she would support a national lockdown, Raimondo said it would require more support from the federal government.
“If Congess would do their job and send a appropriate stimulus, then you could think about a lockdown,” Raimondo said.