PROVIDENCE — In a long-anticipated announcement, Governor Dan McKee said Wednesday that Rhode Island will have a universal mask mandate for venues of assembly and businesses with a capacity of 250 people or more.
Those businesses with a capacity of 250 or less — including restaurants, retail stores, and places of worship — will be able to have patrons show a proof of vaccination to opt out of wearing a mask.
In corporate office buildings and manufacturers, which typically already have their own vaccine and mask rules, workers will need to show proof that they are fully vaccinated or else they will have to wear a mask.
The changes, McKee said, will be implemented on Monday.
“This is not a pause,” the governor said. “We want people to know that businesses will continue, and stay open.”
The news comes as the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have increased. On Wednesday, Rhode Island reported a test positive rate of 7 percent with 266 people hospitalized with COVID-19, the most since early February 2021. Of those hospitalized, 41 people are in the intensive care unit and 24 are on a ventilator.
Since August, Rhode Island has reported “high transmission” of COVID-19 spread.
“We have to react to what’s in front of us,” said McKee, who said he planned on reducing the number of COVID-19 executive orders the state had the week of Thanksgiving. But then cases began to rise again and the first case of the new Omicron variant was identified in the state. ”If you have suggestions on how to make it better— bring it on.”
McKee also announced that he penned a letter to FEMA on Wednesday that requested medical workers to help in Rhode Island’s hospitals and other health care settings. McKee said he will not ask hospital systems to stop or slow elective procedures or non-essential services.
However, Lifespan Corporation spokeswoman Kathleen Hart told the Globe during the governor’s press conference that the system is postponing elective surgeries that require an inpatient, overnight hospital stay.
“Other non urgent electives are being postponed on a day to day basis based on available staff,” she said.
When asked how long Lifespan would postpone elected procedures that require an overnight stay, Hart said, “As long as necessary, depending on our staffing capacity.”
The governor has also directed the state health department and state department of administration to “explore more lab capacity” to expand COVID-19 testing. Turnaround times for PCR results went from under two days to exceeding four days, in some cases, in Rhode Island over the last few weeks.
He said the state will have more testing capacity “within a month.”
Also, within two weeks, dozens of community-based organizations will be distributing 100,000 at-home rapid tests to residents. The governor will also be requesting another 1 million rapid tests from FEMA, which will likely be distributed to health equity zones and places with a higher rate of infection.
“This is some of the highest numbers we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state health director.
“If you’re just fully vaccinated, just two shots for Moderna or Pfizer or one-shot Johnson & Johnson, then early data shows that vaccine effectiveness against Omicron is about 35 percent,” said Alexander-Scott. “Boosters are necessary to get to where we need to be.”
She added, “I cannot stress that enough.”