Governor enacts measures to tamp down social gatherings

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Gov. Gina Raimondo announced new measures to curb spread of the coronavirus, which is on the rise throughout Rhode Island. In a Friday afternoon press conference, the governor had one clear target — unstructured social gatherings.

Referencing the data being collected by the Rhode Island Department of Health in its contact tracing program, Gov. Raimondo said emphatically that the biggest source of the problem is not in schools, businesses or even nursing homes — structured environments with built-in regulations. The biggest problems are being found when people gather in informal groups — baby showers, birthday parties, sleepovers, dinner parties, church coffee hours or the sidelines of sporting events.

Health department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott reiterated the point, saying “unstructured social gatherings are consistently our number one problem.”

Gov. Raimondo specifically cited a large party involving high school students “in the East Bay.” She said they’ve discovered 12 positive cases stemming from the party, with more tests pending; at least four different school districts have been impacted; and hundreds of people, “maybe 1,000 people” have been forced into immediate quarantine.

“Because a couple of kids decided to have a big sleepover … hundreds of lives have been impacted,” she said.

Gov. Raimondo said Rhode Island coronavirus hospitalizations have doubled in the past three weeks. If that trend continues, they will run out of beds and the situation will be dire, she said.

On Friday, the governor announced changes in policy or guidelines for the following …

Group gatherings — 10

The limit on group gatherings is being reduced from 15 to 10, effective immediately.

Every Rhode Islander’s 10-person group is supposed to be the same 10 people — all the time — not 10 people one day and 10 different people the next day. Gov. Raimondo made it clear that the group size includes immediate family members, living in the same household, and then a handful of others.

This is being enacted per executive order, meaning authorities are empowered to penalize hosts caught violating the 10-person standard. Social hosts can be fined up to $500-per-person for all those at a gathering above the 10-person limit. So a party of 25 people could cost the host $7,500 in fines.

No sports spectators

There should be no spectators at sporting events. The governor said official regulations on this will be coming soon, as there may be cases — like 5-year-olds playing soccer — where parents must attend. But overall, she said the sidelines of sporting events have proven to be problematic, as people who don’t normally see each other congregate, have conversations and relax from their normal Covid-19 regulations.

Closing indoor sports facilities

Citing evidence that shows hockey rinks have been a particularly common source of transmissions, Gov. Raimondo followed the lead of other New England governors and ordered ice rinks closed. She said one-third of all sports-related cases have been linked to hockey.

Effective Monday, all ice rinks and indoor sports facilities (indoor soccer, lacrosse, etc.) will be closed for a week. During that time, the health department is supposed to work with facility owners to draft regulations for how they can reopen.

Take church virtual

Houses of worship are being strongly encouraged to offer and promote virtual services to replace in-person services. Gov. Raimondo said there will be official regulations soon, but the problems have mostly occurred during more social situations, like having coffee after a service or chit-chatting outside the church.

If you must go to church, the governor said, “Show up, worship and go home. Wear your mask, and don’t go if you’re sick.”

Visitations further restricted

At nursing homes and other congregate care settings, visitation regulations will be tightened once again. “We’re seeing the most [Covid-19 positive] cases among those in their twenties, thirties and forties, but hospitalizations are being driven by those in their sixties, seventies and eighties,” Gov. Raimondo said.

“So we’re scaling back on visitation … I’m not saying we’re shutting it down. But we need to protect our older relatives, and we’re going to have to have stricter rules around nursing homes and hospital visitation over the next couple of weeks.”

She said new regulations, coming soon, “will try to strike the right balance between what is humane and what is necessary.”

Working from home

The governor asked business owners to once again enable, encourage or demand that their employees work from home. And, she said, “get creative to help us cut down on carpooling.”

The governor said that, especially in the manufacturing sector, employees carpooling to work are becoming another problem area. To employers, she said, “Figure out if there are ways you can help.” To employees, she said, “If you’re going to carpool, even if it’s with your buddies, open the windows and wear masks.”

Gov. Raimondo also announced that the state will be releasing $5 million to help employers who need assistance with enabling their employees to work from home. That effort will be coordinated through Commerce RI.

It’s all social

In her remarks, Dr. Scott talked at length about “informal social gatherings.” She said their data clearly shows these gatherings to be the number-one source of virus spread, and that data is probably only a partial reflection of reality.

“Everything is being self-reported,” she said. “So the estimates we’re getting are probably under-estimates … And some people have refused to answer questions when we did case investigations.”

Dr. Scott said they frequently discover situations where people attempted to do the right thing — reducing a once-large gathering down to a smaller one. “But then people are having smaller parties and not wearing masks,” she said. “We need you to keep your groups consistent and small … And wear masks when there is any interaction with anyone not in your immediate household.”

She concluded, “If you’re with anyone you don’t live with, make sure you’re wearing your mask.”

Hit the ‘social,’ not the commerce

Gov. Raimondo said all the new restrictions are designed to do two things — maximize the health benefits and minimize the economic impact.

“I don’t think anything I just said is popular. I consider it to be necessary. Rhode Island is not in a good place right now … I’m back in a position of having to decide between Bad Option #1 and Bad Option #2,” she said.

“This is a call out to the people of Rhode Island to be very disciplined in the next couple of weeks, so we can avoid a broader set of restrictions that could hurt commerce.”

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