CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Salsa Night is back in Central Falls.
This 1.2-square-mile majority-Latino city has twice withstood COVID-19 outbreaks that made it Rhode Island’s hot spot.
In 2021, infection rates were so bad that the city was forced to cancel the annual Salsa Nights that have drawn more than 700 people to dance on the Roosevelt Avenue bridge. During the first full week of this year, things were not looking better: this city of 22,583 people recorded 1,328 positive tests – more than 6 percent of the population.
But during the week of March 6-12, the city saw just 10 positive tests – equal to the number of cases in rural North Smithfield.
And with that dramatic drop, Mayor Maria Rivera has decided to schedule not just one, but two of the popular Salsa Nights this summer.
“Salsa Night is back,” Rivera told the Globe this week. “It’s so refreshing and so exciting because these past two years have taken such a huge toll on everyone.”
She said the city plans to hold one Salsa Night on Aug. 26; they may also hold one in July. The city will move the events to the Broad Street bridge, which spans the Blackstone River at the Central Falls/Cumberland border, she said.
“It has been way too long,” Rivera said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to bring the community back together and to bring people from other communities here.”
She said the celebrations will bring some fun and joy, plus a sense of normalcy, to a city still reeling from the pandemic.
“We all know someone that knows someone who passed away for COVID, or we know someone directly,” Rivera said. “People lost their family members, their friends. Students were home without the social contact they get from the community. People lost their jobs. Our businesses were struggling. Some closed, and some had to sell.”
She cautioned that the city must remain vigilant and ensure that cases do not spike again, especially now that the Omicron subvariant BA.2 accounts for more than half the new cases of COVID-19 in New England.
But the reduced number of COVID-19 cases reflects the hard work that went into vaccine clinics and COVID-19 testing over the past two years, Rivera said. She said she meets each week with Dr. Michael Fine, the city’s the city’s chief health strategist, and he has been reporting a steady decrease in the number of cases.
Fine, who served as director of the state Department of Health from 2011 to 2015, said the sharp drop likely results from enough city residents either getting the vaccine, getting the virus, or both.
“My guess is Central Falls hit herd immunity,” he said. “That is probably a temporary result of the combination of naturally acquired immunity from getting infected and from people getting the vaccine. That combination has been pretty powerful.”
The drop in cases could also reflect that fewer tests are being conducted in clinics and more tests are being done at home, Fine said. But the decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations indicates that there is less spread of the disease in the community, he said.
Fine said the United States might see similar levels of herd immunity in the future. “This is what the country might hope for two to three years down the line after more people are vaccinated and a couple more rounds of infection surges,” he said.
More surges are likely to happen, he said. “And when there is a surge, we will still need masking and good testing,” he said. “We will need to protect the elderly and the vulnerable.”
Fine said Rhode Island will need to keep eye on number of new cases in the weeks ahead, given the potential for the virus to spread at gatherings tied to St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and Passover.
And he said not nearly enough Rhode Islanders have received vaccine boosters. As of Tuesday, 39.3 percent of the state population and 46.9 percent of the adult population had received boosters, according to state Department of Health data.
“I haven’t put (COVID-19) in my rear view mirror,” Fine said. “My sense is we have another two or three years of being careful.”
But while the potential for future outbreaks persists, the decrease comes as good news to a community that has faced more than its fair share of bad news.
“Remember, we have been hit twice hard,” Fine said. “I think everybody is relieved.”
So will the doctor be dancing on Salsa Night?
Fine said it depends on where the city’s COVID-19 numbers stand at that point. If the number of cases is creeping back up, he will continue wearing a face mask and remaining cautious, he said.
“But if it goes lower and stays lower,” Fine said, “I am looking forward to the opportunity to dance with the mayor and all her friends.”