Smooth Sailing Out of the Ocean State: Raimondo’s confirmation hearing for cabinet nomination took place today

Governor Gina Raimondo answered questions before the US Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation committee today in a confirmation hearing that could not have gone smoother for her nomination. The Ocean State governor answered questions from Democrats and Republicans serving on the committee that ranged from broadband access, to jobs programs to net neutrality. There was no official vote recorded at the conclusion of the confirmation hearing in committee today, but Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MI) said he did not expect Raimondo to be governor of Rhode Island for too much longer.

The governor received glowing commendations in remarks from Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, with Reed regaling a attendees with a typical Ocean State story of meeting Raimondo when she was still a newborn and he was a second lieutenant. Her submitted written testimony committee bore all the major hallmarks of Gina-isms: being a born in a state where manufacturing was on the decline, the story of her working-class father and watch factory, as well as her commerce-related accomplishments, many tied to jobs.

Conservatives and critics of the Raimondo administration would have found themselves disappointed watching today. There were few fireworks in the committee room, with barely any questions touching on the governor’s record as chief executive. Senator Ted Cruz asked pointed questions about her track record with jobs, citing a CNBC ranking that placed Rhode Island dead last in 2019. Raimondo answered that prior to the COVID pandemic, the state had achieved its lowest unemployment, as well as its highest employment rate, in years. She repeated what became almost catechism at the confirmation hearing: “I’m committed to fighting for the American worker.”

Under questioning from Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, Raimondo also stated she supporting reforming Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act that gives internet publishers immunity from the content users upload to their website, as well as protection from civil litigation in moderating content on their website. Raimondo was much more close-lipped on net neutrality, evading Johnson’s attempts to get her to say one way or the other how she feels about such policy legislation. Raimondo also emphasized the need to hold social media companies accountable for what is put on their platforms, but demurred on potential anti-trust actions or need for actions.

“Governor will you support…” was another common refrain on the hearing today, as individual senators asked Raimondo to support certain legislation one way or the other. Raimondo, as she is known to do, frequently responded with an “I hear you,” or an “I pledge to work with you on this issue.” Other standouts in the hearing this morning was a commitment to expand broadband access to rural areas, something Ramondo says she supports. The governor did say she was opposed to a nationalized 5G telecommunications network.

Raimondo repeated the Biden administration’s commitment to broadly reviewing all tariffs implemented during the Trump years. China was a frequent topic, and the governor repeated her insistence on “free trade but fair trade” and bringing companies (and countries) on an equal playing field so American businesses and workers are not left out in the cold. Asked if she supports measures, such as the Keystone XL pipeline cancellation, in the energy sector that would kill jobs, Raimondo answered that energy sector policy questions are not the role of the Commerce Dept. She did stress, however, that with investments in green infrastructure, more good paying union jobs would be created.

The American fishing industry and the census were the other important topics in the committee today. Many of the senators present emphasized the need to save the fishing industry as well as various hospitality industries. One senator noted that 70% of American seafood is eaten at restaurants, making restaurant closures devastating for related industries; 4,000 people in Rhode Island are in the fishing industry. “I assess the impacts to be quite longstanding unless we take bold action,” she said.

Raimondo also said when asked questions about the census that she would take the politics of the census. She also pledged to give the agency the time and resources it needs to complete a full count.

It’s unclear when Raimondo will be confirmed with a full Senate vote. Several of Biden’s key picks for national security and the economy have been confirmed. Newly confirmed Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was voted less than a week after her confirmation hearing. Raimondo is still scheduled to give her (presumed final) State of the State address next week.




Bills That Address the Pandemic Passed Out of Committee: Health and Human Services holds first 2021 meeting

Josh Miller, Health and Human Services committee chair

The Rhode Island Senate Committee on Health and Human Services passed three bills out of committee on Thursday night in its first meeting of the year. The bills would extend coverage of telemedicine and provide coverage for it under RI Medicaid and enshrine certain ACA consumer protections and varying health insurance premium rates based on gender.

“Our priority will have bills that are important to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Josh Miller (District 28 – Cranston), committee chair. He continued, “Future meetings will therefore address issues such as nursing home visitation, overdose prevention and access to healthcare in the hardest hit communities.”

While most of the bills passed unanimously, many among the public testifying last night were concerned over language in the Sub A of Senate Bill 4. The bill would extend coverage of telemedicine under Rhode Island Medicaid. Some industry groups from different outpatient specialties were concerned that their own field was left out, as only primary care and behavioral health are specified in the bill. Sen. Miller noted that the reason is that the provider networks for insurers were historically inadequate (pre-COVID) for primary care and behavioral healthcare, and that the reimbursement rates were much lower for the providers than other specialties.

“Already we have the data, both anecdotal and scientifically, on how access to behavioral health and primary care was improved based on telemedicine during the pandemic.” said Miller. He said not having that parity language for the two fields would be a big step back, especially if reimbursement rates for telemedicine were lower than for in person. The bill was introduced by Miller, and cosponsored by Sens. Gayle Goldin (District 3 – Providence), Bridget Valverde (District 35 – EG, NK, SK, and Narragansett), and Maryelln Goodwin (District 1 – Providence).

Senate Bill 5 protects consumer protections as they exist under the Affordable Care Act, laying out a list of essential services that all health insurance must cover if they wish to sell health insurance in Rhode Island. The bill was (again) introduced by Miller himself, with Sens. Ryan Pearson (District 19 -,Cumberland/Lincoln) Valerie Lawson (District 14 – East Providence), Meghan Kallman (District 15 – North Providence/Pawtucket) and Frank Lombardo (District 25 –  Johnston) cosponsoring. The list of essential services includes but is not limited to hospitalization, emergency services, prescription drugs, maternity and newborn care, lab services, preventative services, and more. The law is written so if the ACA was to be overturned and no longer be the law of the land, health insurance companies would still be bound by these standards in the Ocean State.

Cori Chandler of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network presented concerns in telephonic testimony that the current bill is missing elements they consider critical. She emphasized the importance of prohibition on life and annual limits. Prior to the ACA, insurance companies could limit the number of visits to services that would be covered under insurance plans, or just impose a $2,000 limit on coverage every year. 

Senate Bill 3 would prohibit insurance companies from charging different rates for premiums based on gender. The bill has been introduced in the past by Sen. Susan Sosnowski (District 37 – New Shoreham, South Kingstown), and as many testifers noted was a source of gender discrimination. Other cosponsors on the bill include Michael McCaffrey (District 29 – Warwick), Goodwin, Hanna Gallo (District 27 – Cranston/West Warwick), and Walter Felag (District 10 – Bristol, Tiverton, Warren). Laurie-Marie Pisciotta executive director of the RI Mental Health Association noted that males were more at risk for schizophrenia, develop it earlier and live with it longer than their female counterparts but the insurance premium rates remain the same.

HHS is the first committee to meet since the start of the term and the first to meet in a digital format. Only Miller and staff were present in the committee room. Other senators on the committee, including new appointees Sam Bell (District 5 – Providence), Alana DiMario (District 36, – Narragansett and North Kingstown) and Jeanine Calkin (District 30 – Warwick), attended using televisual software and broadcast on Capitol TV. Members of the public who wished to testify could either submit written testimony (of which there were 70 letters), or call into the meeting, giving the usual staid senate committee meeting a talk radio show vibe.

While the bills easily sailed out of committee, the work is far from done. Sen. Miller acknowledged the state Senate was now meeting once a week, down from its usual three times a week in the Great COVID Before Time. He acknowledged the testimony and concerns from the public, and proposed sending the bills out of committee onto the floor, and working out amendments as a committee to be presented when the bills are presented. Currently, according to Miller, the earliest the bills could be passed by a floor vote is a week from Tuesday.

“I would give us like a 91 on both technical and conduct,” said Miller, rating how the new format of the meeting went under the circumstances. “Calls were much better than I imagined they might. “




Stay Positive and Test Negative: LG Dan McKee takes questions from the press

Lt. Gov. Dan McKee

Lieutenant Governor and soon-to-be-Governor Dan McKee held his first official press event today, the first one since he became a governor-in-waiting where he was the star of the show. The setting was unusual for a group accustomed to “big” city politics in Providence, a Chelo’s over by the airport in Warwick, chosen for its small business emphasis as well as its Rhode Island connection. The owners of Chelo’s are reported to have gone to high school with McKee’s father.

“My message to Rhode Island is this,” said McKee. “We’re gonna work through this together and come out of this [COVID-19 crisis] better than we came in.” The lieutenant governor is about five days into his transition, and he stressed to the press today it was his fifth one as an executive officer. McKee, as previously reported, will be keeping the current COVID-19 response team in place for the state, but wants to work with towns and local groups more, bringing a grassroots response to the pandemic he thought had been lacking.

McKee said his door was always open to the media, and didn’t see that policy changing. Local media felt the sting yesterday, when Governor Raimondo declined to answer questions of any kind at her weekly COVID-19 presser. McKee offered no criticism of his predecessor and re-oriented questions repeatedly around the state’s COVID response he’s about to take over. 

“The goal for the year is to stay positive and test negative,” said McKee.

There are no foreseen changes to cabinet according to the lieutenant governor. Each cabinet member, including the RIDE commissioner, will have a conversation with McKee and they will come to a decision together whether they are staying on. On choosing his successor as lieutenant governor, McKee repeated his intention to form a committee to help appoint a new LG, and not get into “side bar conversations” with the General Assembly about the process. McKee offered no specifics of who he favored, but invited more people to put their names in. When asked about the utility of the office and the big stink Bob Healey made in 2014 about the uselessness of the office, McKee said he had long wanted to realign the office to make it more useful. He also noted many did not think the office was useless, and cited the number of people putting their names forward for consideration.

McKee made a commitment today to legalize marijauana. Rhode Island has long lagged behind its neighbor states and others over legalizing what is widely viewed as a popular and harmless drug. The lieutenant governor said he favors a private, entrepreneur-run system as opposed to the state-run dispensary system favored by Raimondo.

Local school districts can expect a lot more support from the future governor. McKee made no bones about forcing school districts to follow state guidance or else. “We need to let local districts decide and support them,” he said about distance learning. While he admitted he could not criticize a mayor after being one for 14 years, he did emphasize the need for state input in education under COVID. The lieutenant governor also said he would not seek to  expand charter schools, something he’s heavily supported in the past. He wants to support the current system as much as possible, stressing the need for districts and charters.

McKee declined to get into specifics over the budget deficit, saying it was impossible to say one way or the other without “pinning down the numbers.” He stated that the original projected budget deficit of $900 million was off by hundreds of millions of dollars. The lieutenant governor was confident in his ability to handle the deficit, citing improving the bond rating of Cumberland during his time as mayor. He also expressed confidence in President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to get aid to cities and towns through Congress this year. 

His budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year will be submitted to the General Assembly as soon as March 10, and it remains to be seen how different it will be from Raimondo’s.




Opened and Closed

Opened

Five Guys: 63 Airport Rd, Warwick. fiveguys.com This greasy (tremendously unhealthy) burger chain opened a new location on Airport Road in Warwick, with a mobile pick up window that already has car lines going out into the street. 

Pizza Marvin: 468 Wickenden St, PVD. pizzamarvin.com This new pizzeria over in Fox Point boosts “New Haven-style inspired” pies, whatever that means.

Foodlove Market: 1037 Aquidneck Ave, Middletown. Opening this summer, they sell pre-made to-go meals made with local ingredients, from pizza to rotisserie chicken to groceries, sushi, poke bowls and more.

Air and Anchor: airandanchor.com An online jewelry and accessory shop started by a couple in Cranston. 

Zurner Oceanic: 40 Franklin St, Newport. zurneroceanic.com Opened during the pandemic, this nautical-themed shop sells … well, oceanic-themed goods. 

Charter Books: 8 Broadway, Newport. charterbookstore.com Taking its name from the 1663 doc that founded our state, this new bookstore aims to push more than just pulp, airport thrillers. 

Graze on Main: 58 Main St, East Greenwich. grazeonmaineg.com Across the street from the Greenwich Odeum (and hidden in the back) this biz curates cured meat and cheeses in specialty charcuterie platters.

Rejects Beer Company: 124 Aquidneck Ave, Middletown. fb.com/Rejects-Beer-Co-102299191680951/. The newest brewer in the East Bay. See story page XX.

Times Are Tough Gallery: Located literally in the breezeway of someone’s Middletown home, this gallery store sells prints, cards, jewelry. And can we get a big ol’ “No shit!” about the name? Visit fb.com/timesaretoughgallery to arrange a visit.

Closed
Eli’s Kitchen in Warren: This Warren restaurant, run by chef Eli Dunn, closed at the end of 2020. Dunn announced he and a couple of his partner chefs would open a new space at a new location sometime in 2021.




Raimondo Addresses the Press for the First Time in Weeks: A summary of the governor’s January 13 press conference

The circus was in town today at The Vets, as Governor Raimondo declined to answer questions from the press in her first public appearance since it was announced she was President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Commerce. State officials steered away from political questions in an attempt to orient the press conference around COVID-19 response. The governor left shortly after concluding her announcements, much to the consternation of the press.

Raimondo began her remarks today by saying what an honor it was to serve as Rhode Island’s governor and be asked by President-elect Biden to lead a cabinet department. With inauguration a week away, it’s unclear when exactly Raimondo will step down. Her offices are reported to be coordinating with Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee. McKee speculated in a later press huddle with reporters that he would take the reins as a new governor officially sometime in mid-February. His office has scheduled a press conference tomorrow at Chelo’s on Post Rd in Warwick. The only confirmed detail of transition is McKee’s pledge to keep the current COVID response team in place after Raimondo leaves.

“I say that because I want Rhode Islanders to know there will be no disruption in our COVID-19 response,” said the governor. 

Raimondo is leaving Rhode Island in the midst of a stark resurgence of COVID-19. Today, there are 823 new cases of COVID-19 with a percent positive testing rate of 5%. The cumulative number of cases is now 102,485 since March. Weekly new cases per 100,000 continue to rise, while other trends, like weekly percent positive and new hospital admissions, trend downward. There are 402 people currently hospitalized; 49 people are currently in the ICU with 35 on ventilators. 

McKee gave his first remarks to the press today as presumptive governor, crediting Raimondo with her accomplishments during her tenure. “The governor has done a great job as governor of Rhode Island,” he said. McKee went on to say it was a point of personal pride for all Rhode Islanders that a sitting governor from the Ocean State was nominated for a cabinet position. He stated his office has been communicating with Raimondo’s for some years, moreso during the pandemic. There have been news reports from the past few weeks that McKee has not met with the governor personally since 2019.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott gave a briefing on vaccination progress by DoH. With very little room for wastage, this week the following areas are getting vaccinated: nursing homes, outpatient providers like respiratory clinics and urgent care workers. Also getting tested are some folks in Central Falls, school nurses, EMS workers and others. Next week many of the same groups will continue to be vaccinated, with additional groups like doctors and dentists offices, behavioral health providers, group homes and residents older than 75. 

While the room at the start of the presser was fully packed with local honchos and members of the national press hoping to get some kind of vocalization out of Raimondo vaulting onto the national stage, most press quietly exited by the end when it was just COVID news. Raimondo reportedly dodged and declined to answer questions from the press both inside and outside The Vets in Providence. It remains to be seen whether she will communicate with the press again like she did prior to the commerce secretary news.




No Rhode Islander Can Resist a Cabinet: Raimondo heads to DC, leaving a power vacuum in her wake

Governor Gina Raimondo is leaving the Ocean State for another job. News broke last week via a leak to The New York Times that President-elect Joe Biden was picking our two-term Rhode Island executive for commerce secretary. The decision comes after months, if not years, of rampant speculation. Raimondo, a rising Democrat within her own party, boasts moderate (read: conservative) credentials and is a stellar fundraiser for Democrats’ causes. Her appointment would be the first time in the state’s history that a sitting governor left office to accept a cabinet appointment. 

Raimondo, a former venture capitalist and Rhodes scholar whose educational pipeline goes from Lasalle Academy to Harvard to Yale to Oxford, was first elected state treasurer in 2010. Her pension reform policies remain controversial to this day, with critics rebuking the sharp rise in fees paid to hedge fund managers and her lowering of entitlements. She defeated Ocean State blueblood scion Clay Pell and former Providence mayor Angel Taverez in the 2014 Democratic primary. She went on to defeat Allan Fung in the general (doing so again in a rematch in 2018) to become the Ocean State’s 75th governor.

As governor, Raimondo has boasted lowering the state’s employment rate (pre-COVID of course), pushing for more diversity in the state’s judiciary, reducing small business taxes and regulation, and moving the state toward clean energy. Her tenure has not been without controversy, however. The UHIP rollout disaster saw the state spend millions on a new computer system for government programs like childcare and food assistance only for the system to crash and create a backlog of 20,000 cases. DCYF has seen a rise in fatal or near-fatal incidents involving children under state care. Raimondo’s big push to reopen schools during the COVID crisis has come under sharp criticism from educators and parent groups across the state, as has the liability shield she gave nursing homes for the COVID crisis. COVID case rates and deaths continue to soar.

With Raimondo leaving with 18 months left on the clock, Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee is poised to inherit the top job in the state and cause a political seachange never seen in the state’s history. McKee will be empowered as governor to handpick his successor, making him move, to paraphrase a Providence Journal headline, from a forgotten man to the most powerful man in the state, almost overnight. According to researchers at the Rhode Island Secretary of State, the most recent time in history a state governor stepped down from the office was when John Pastore resigned to run for United States Senate in 1950.

McKee, a generation older than Raimondo (when he was Raimondo’s current age he was just getting elected mayor of Cumberland), is a few steps further to the right in the Democratic Party. During his time as lieutenant governor, McKee has been a big proponent of local small businesses and especially evangelical for the cause of charter schools in the Ocean State. A graduate of Cumberland High School, McKee owned and operated small businesses throughout the Blackstone Valley region. He first came to local politics in 1992 when he was elected to the Cumberland Town Council. He went on to serve 11 non-consecutive terms as mayor, starting in 2000 and ending in 2014 when he was elected the state’s 65th lieutenant governor. 

Rhode Island’s political rumor mill, famous for being one of the state’s only remaining mills, went into overdrive this weekend as pundits speculated just whom McKee would choose to replace him as lieutenant governor. Three top names surfaced over the weekend: former Central Falls mayor James Diossa, Johnston mayor Joe Polisena, and state senator for District 12 Louis DiPalma. Twitter saw advocacy over the weekend as well when RI Democrat Women’s Caucus chair Liz Gledhill pressed McKee to choose a woman for the role. Several women have put their names forward, including former state senator Donna Nesselbush, current Woonsocket mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, and Lisa Ranglin, head of the RI Black Business Association. 

While the role of lieutenant governor is generally known as the short stick of Rhode Island’s big statewide offices (Raimondo reportedly has ignored communications from Lieutenant Governor McKee and hasn’t met with him in person since 2019), McKee’s choice will have big implications in the next election. Both McKee and whomever he chooses to be lieutenant governor after him will serve out the remainder of the terms and be running for re-election within 18 months. Even prior to Raimondo’s announced ascendancy to a cabinet role, campaign wheels were turning among those who wanted to succeed her and McKee. Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Providence mayor Jorge Elorza were a few on the Democrat side widely expected to run in the party primary next year. Now what was an open primary turns into a race against an incumbent who has been in the job for more than a year.

Those seeking office for lieutenant governor are in the same boat. Former house rep Aaron Regunberg is the first to explore another run for lieutenant governor. Regunberg, one of the state’s most visible progressives, lost to McKee in 2018 by fewer than 3,000 votes. “I am excited to continue exploring another run for that office, and look forward to working to earn the support of my neighbors,” Regunberg said in a statement provided to Motif after the commerce secretary news broke. “Regardless of the political appointments that we may see in the coming months, it will be the voters of Rhode Island who will choose their next elected lieutenant governor in two years.”

The other general officers running congratulated Raimondo in their statements, and said they were looking forward to working with McKee. As of this writing, the transition is still being worked out, and McKee, in quarantine over the weekend from exposure to a close contact with COVID-19, has said little about whom he intends to appoint in his place.




Scot Free: Officers involved in Gonsalves moped crash will not be charged

Attorney General Peter Neronha announced today his office will press no charges against any officers involved with the Jhamal Gonsalves moped crash on October 18. The announcement from the AG’s office comes after a two and half month investigation. Jhamal Gonsalves had been driving a moped for the Ride Out rally on that day, before crashing and ending up in a coma at Rhode Island Hospital. The incident inspired protests against police brutality and sparked new conversations about policing in the community.

Colonel James Manni of Rhode Island State Police laid out the findings of the crash reconstruction unit. Manni announced the unit had found no damage to the cruiser from the moped and vice versa. The cruiser had crashed into the stop sign, sending the sign to hit Gonsalves on his helmet. Neronha found there was no criminal negligence in the conduct of the officers. He also announced that despite Endres calling other officers on the police radio to “box them in,” no officers responded to the radio call. Another officer, Officer McParlin, who was close to the crash at the time, did not respond to the call in anyway. “Boxing them in” refers to the practice of driving a person in the vicinity of another officer.

Neronha showed various audio, body cam footage and cell phone footage in laying out the his office’s finding. “We did not rely just on video,” said Neronha. The state police reenactment showed that the accident could not have happened in any way other than what the video and damage comparison showed. The only way for the stop sign to have hit Gonsalves on his head was for the cruiser to hit the stop sign and stop. Endres was slowing down in the last six seconds before the crash, hitting the stop sign at 18.5 mph. The attorney general said today they only presented scientific evidence, black box data from the cruiser, video gathered from the crash and scene reconstruction. He acknowledged statements from the officers and statements from the witnesses contradict each other.

“It’s not to say Officer Endres drove perfectly here,” says Neronha. The state police report opines the movement of the wheel form body cam footage is consistent with practices to avoid a collision. 

“Proof of negligent driving is not enough,” said Neronha. The RI Supreme Court has a high standard for proving criminal negligence with driving. According to the Court, a minor driving offense is not enough to prove criminal action. Excessive speed, driving impairment, weaving in and out of traffic, texting while driving, tailgating, failure to break are the behavior needed to be involved according to the highest court. “

“It’s the kind of thing when you travel down [interstate] 95 you know when you see it.” said the attorney general.  “It’s the guy in front of you driving like maniac.” Neronha cited two Supreme Court cases, State v. Arnold and Watkins v South County, where the judge set the standard for criminal negligence. 

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Pare stated there would be accountability for the incident from within the department, with more being announced soon.




Mr. Speaker: Joe Shekarchi named Speaker of the House

Rep. Joe Shekarchi is officially the new Speaker of the House in Rhode Island. The state’s House of Representatives met today for the first meeting of the new legislative session. Shekarchi became speaker-presumptive last fall, shortly after then-Speaker Nicholas Mattiello lost his race to Barbara Fenton-Fung in District 16. 

“The COVID crisis has dealt a crippling blow to our communities and our state,” said Shekarchi in his first speech to the assembly as Speaker, also promising that his approach in office would be different in a clear nod to his predecessor’s prickly personality. Shekrachi was a prime mover in getting the budget passed for the current fiscal year in the lame duck session. 

In the days leading up to the new session, he also came under fire for his background as an evictions lawyer and comments concerning the minimum wage and progressive members of the house.

Shekrachi was nominated by Rep. Mary Messier and seconded by Rep. Katherine Kazarian. Both spoke highly of Shekarchi’s willingness to listen to the representatives, stressing that he does not impose his viewpoints on others. “A vote for Joe Shekrachi today is an affirmation to our constituents that we are ready to get to work on their behalf.”

Mike Chippendale (District 40) on the Republican side nominated Minority Leader Blake Fillipi for Speaker, speaking favorably of Fillipi’s willingness to work across the aisle, as well as his passion for the U.S. Constitution and libertarian causes. Fillipi’s nomination was seconded by Brian Newberry, who promised if given the votes for House leadership and budget, the budget would look radically different under Fillipi leadership.

Final vote tally was 59 votes for Shekarchi, 9 for Fillipi, and four abstentions. Reps. Cassar, Morales, McGaw and Henries abstained from the House leadership vote. Cassar announced a run for Speaker originally when Mattiello held the position. The other three reps made a point of abstaining from the leadership vote. The Rhode Island Political Cooperative, rapidly becoming the state’s preeminent progressive politic organization, called last week for House representatives to abstain from today’s leadership vote. The Co-op in a statement said, “Joe Shekarchi represents nothing more than a continuation of the corruption we have seen under past Speakers.” The statement goes on to claim that Shekarchi has taken more than 300 donations from lobbyists. 

Notably absent was Barbara Fenton-Fung, not attending for reasons related to COVID-19. While her vote did not count in absentia, in a prepared statement from her read by the clerk, Fenton-Fung stated that had she been there, she would have voted for Shekarchi, officially breaking with her party. Also absent with messages read by the clerk were Grace Diaz (out with a serious bout of COVID-19) and Art Handy. Both stated they would have voted for Shekarchi.

Shekarchi appointed Rep. Arthur Corvese to chair the rules committee, with Reps. Michael O’Brien and Camille Vella-Wilkinson serving as vice chairs.  Other reps on the committee include Samuel Azzinaro, Julie Casimiro, Grace Diaz, Katherine Kazarian, Brian Kennedy, Alex Marszalkowski, Joe McNamara, Brian Newberry, Robert Phillips, David Place, Pat Serpa, Evan Shanley, Scott Slater and Anastasia Williams.

The next meeting of the Rhode Island House of Representatives will be on January 19.




We’ve Turned a Corner: A summary of the governor’s December 22 press conference

Governor Gina Raimondo, DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, DOA director Brett Smiley and Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor gave the weekly COVID press briefing today at 1pm.

DOH reports 880 new cases of the novel coronavirus since yesterday, from around 12,000 tests taken yesterday. The positive test rate is 7.1%. There are 440 people hospitalized with the virus; 54 of those people are in the intensive care unit and 38 people are on ventilators. DOH reports eight additional deaths.

State officials noted while data was still high and the state still in the throes of dangerous community spread, all the weekly metrics are still on a decline. “We’ve turned a corner,” said the governor expressing some relief. She acknowledged that the test positive rate was still higher than they want to be, above 5%, but the rate is declining with each passing day.

Governor Raimondo reminded viewers to still be careful post-pause as the holidays approach. “Don’t gather indoors with people you don’t live with,” she said. She stressed the need for mask wearing around people you do not live with. Raimondo asked Rhode Islanders to make a plan to get tested twice before the end of year, once before Christmas and once after Christmas. Long wait times for a test and test results were a thing of the past, she assured, the system has plenty of capacity.

As announced last week, the state of Rhode Island has officially allocated all of the monies it received from the CARES Act in the spring. The governor spent some time today breaking down how state officials spent the stimulus funds. The state spent the biggest amount on business and economic supports, totalling $488.7 million. $424.6 million went toward state and municipal governments on personnel for COVID response. $129.3 million went toward the state’s COVID response infrastructure: testing, PPE, National Guard costs and any other costs. $116.8 million went toward K-12 and public higher education. $90.7 went toward individual supports like rental and housing assistance, food supports and cash assistance.

State leaders are relieved that a new relief package has passed through Congress. Gov. Raimondo stated she was most thrilled about the amount of money targeted for rental assistance for Rhode Islanders. President Trump has yet to sign the bill; Smiley said today it could be many weeks before his office figures out how much in dollars the state will receive as part of it. Smiley also noted that there was no aid specifically for state government and towns to plug holes in budgets.

In vaccine news, 4,200 Rhode Islanders have received the first dose of the COVID vaccines. The state was hesitant to announce how many doses and when it would receive them, but Raimondo did mention today that production would be cranked way up starting in the new year. Dr. Alexander-Scott estimated by the end of this week RI will have received at least 35,000 doses from both companies producing a vaccine. At least 5,000 of those doses are being set aside to specifically target workers and residents in nursing homes, who have been ravaged by the pandemic. Dr. Alexander-Scott said much of the vaccination plans were in broad strokes, but DOH was making strides in making distribution equitable. She repeated what Dr. Chan announced last week, that the plan was formulated based on assessed risk, and Central Falls would be considered a priority for vaccine distribution.

No press conference next week, the governor is giving people time off to enjoy the holidays. DOH will also not be updating the COVID data dashboard on Christmas/New Year’s Eves or Days. The next press conference is scheduled for January 7, the first Thursday in 2021.




Key Measures Trending Down: A summary of the governor’s December 18 press conference

Governor Gina Raimondo, Dr. Jim McDonald and Dr. Philip Chan gave the weekly COVID-19 press conference today from the Vets.

Today’s data is as follows: 395 new cases of COVID-19, with a positive test rate of 4.4%, a low number the governor was particularly proud of even with the lower testing numbers due to the recent snow storm. There are 459 people hospitalized for reasons associated with the coronavirus; 56 people are in the intensive care unit and 29 people are on ventilators. DOH reports 23 new fatalities for a cumulative total of 1,625 deaths. All three trends state officials closely monitor weekly — new hospital admissions, percent positive averages and new cases per 100,000 — are trending down for the first time in more than two months. 

“That’s all good news,” said Raimondo about the trend lines. Today Governor Raimondo announced the pause would end this upcoming Monday. Mobility data available to state health offices showed a marked decline in mobility for the duration of the pause, and the R1 value has now been estimated to be as low as 1. 

“When I was up here a week ago, we started to see a slight decrease in percent positivity,” said the governor. “Today I’m relieved the decline has continued.” She characterized our hospital system, as “stretched” but not overwhelmed to the degree of some other states in the nation. The new rules for reopening are live on reopeningri.com; the governor outlined most of them to the press last week and they will be officially starting on Monday as expected. 

With Christmas on the horizon, the governor asked people to celebrate Christmas with the people they live with and not travel too much, similar to what she asked last month for Thanksgiving. Raimondo thanked the Catholic church for canceling midnight mass, and instead holding extra masses enabling congregants to spread out more. The governor also thanked other houses of worship for working so hard to accommodate public health concerns. She also announced today statewide, aggressive “pop-up” testing ahead of the Christmas holidays. State officials will work to meet the people where they are at sites like shopping malls and other holiday areas. A full list of sites will be available on the RIDOH website.

Schools will be returning next month as media reported last week. The governor is eyeing a ramping-up strategy similar to what schools were expected to do in the autumn. Schools are to start allowing in-person learning again on January 7th and full ramp up by the 15th. State leaders have been distributing 6,000 HEPA filters and RIDOH guidance ahead of the upcoming school term.

RIDOH has given nursing homes the greenlight to train family members as essential caregivers. Family members will be able to sign up on nursing homes that are taking part in the program to help family members with grooming or hygiene or similar needs to some degree. Potential caregivers will be given the same training, guidance and restrictions as any other employee of a nursing home facility. The governor said it was a program that worked well in a lot of states, and they were glad to be bringing it here ahead of the holiday season.

Dr. Chan gave the state’s vaccine update. Vaccination data is now recorded on RIDOH’s COVID data dashboard. Rhode Island has received 9,750 doses of vaccines. Two thousand have gone to RI Hospital; Newport, Miriam, Kent, Women and Infants got 1,000 doses each, with the rest going to South County Hospital, Fatima Hospital, Roger Williams Hospital, Westerly Hospital and the Slater hospital. Dr. Chan stressed the state is not administering the vaccine, the state has shifted that burden onto the hospital networks. More vaccines will be delivered in the weeks to come, with Dr. Chan noting that reports of the state receiving less than originally reported is true. State health officials do not know why the number will be less, but are working on it. RIDOH, in collaboration with CVS and Walgreens, are also preparing to start vaccinating nursing home residents starting on December 28. The state is still finalizing its vaccine plan for after the first phase, but did announce today that residents of Central Falls would be prioritized as they have been classified as higher risk.

Earlier this month, a DOH report found that drug overdose deaths in the first six months of 2020 are 25.9% up from 2019. Opioid specific deaths are up 33% during the pandemic. Before this year, overdoses in the state were on a declining trend. Motif asked today what the state’s plan was to combat this recent surge in numbers. “It’s a very top priority for the new year,” said the governor. “I think we need to be more aggressive in launching a recovery-friendly workplace initiative.” For current work, the governor points toward her jobs initiatives in getting people back to work, saying that a job was the key to sustaining recovery. However the COVID economy has made it hard for anyone to get or sustain a job. 

According to the governor, the current stimulus bill has money set aside for addiction, and the state was prepared to utilize that money if allocated immediately, using it on medically assisted treatment in prison and the community, spending it on community outreach, peer recovery workers and telemedicine. Rhode Island has recorded 316 overdose deaths in 2020, and is on track to meet or exceed its 2016 peak.