COVID Numbers Declining: A summary of the governor’s weekly press conference

Governor Dan Mckee and other public health leaders gave the weekly COVID-19 response briefing today.

Rhode Island’s COVID numbers continue to be on the decline. There have been 200 new cases of the coronavirus since yesterday, for a percent positive test rate of 1.1%. The weekly average has declined to 1.6%. There are 118 people hospitalized for reasons related to the virus. The weekly average for new hospital admissions is 112, down from 134 just last week. Twenty-three people are in the intensive care unit, and 16 people are on ventilators. 

“Things continue to get better, I remain cautiously optimistic,” said DoH’s Dr. Philip Chan. The B117 variant continues to be the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the Ocean State with public health leaders estimating it causes about 50% of current infections. Ninety percent of teachers in the state are vaccinated, and as a result, infections among educators have declined. Rates of COVID-19 among children are going up, mirroring national trends. A vaccine safe for under-16s is not expected to be consumer ready for many months.

Around 95/96% of people getting the first dose of a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine are returning for their second shots, COVID response director Tom McCarthy told Motif today. More than 581,000 people are at least partially vaccinated, not counting those who live out of state. There are 428,823 people considered fully vaccinated, which the state counts as two weeks from the final dose of any of the three vaccines currently available. 

Two of the state’s vaccine sites have performed 2,500 walk up appointments of the vaccine, with the state still working on at-home vaccine shots for residents older than 75 who have not received the vaccine. Approximately 280,000 people are left in the total eligibility pool, 13,500 of them are over the age of 75. “We have an ample supply of vaccines,” said Dr. Chan.

The first round of COVID restrictions are scheduled to be lifted starting tomorrow. Here are the highlights:

  • Mask wearing is still required indoors in public areas, but not outdoors if you are vaccinated and can socially distance at least three feet from others.
  • The social gathering limit is being raised to 25 for indoors and up to 75 people outdoors. 
  • Restaurants, venues, houses of worship, fitness centers and other businesses will see capacity limits lifted to 80% indoors with three feet of spacing, and 100% outdoors.
  • You can also start sitting at bars again without ordering food, but plexiglass is still required. 
  • Catered events can have up to 250 guests indoors and 500 guests outdoors with rapid on-site COVID testing still recommended. Standing service will only be allowed outside.

These loosened restrictions will remain in place until May 28, when many of them will be lifted. In other news, Gov. McKee announced today the state will reinstate and enforce work search requirements for people on unemployment starting May 23. State officials had previously waived the requirement for duration of the pandemic. 

Finally as the state reopens itself for business later this month, Gov McKee hinted that the state may seek a change of venue. For most of the pandemic, the state has hosted reporters at The Vets giving live updates, but McKee said today it may change soon to the State House, another sign of state leaders’ confidence in the handling of the pandemic.

Do You Take Democracy with Your Coffee? White Electric takes on a radical new experiment

A Providence favorite reopened its doors on May 1 under new ownership. White Electric has been a Westminster Street mainstay for years. Like many other local businesses, in the last year it’s been the victim of intermittent hours, COVID regulations and state-mandated lockdowns and pauses. Now it’s back for good, and the workers have transformed it into the state’s first workers’ cooperative coffee shop and a radical experiment in workplace democracy.

“It’s about having a meaningful impact in your workplace, having an actual voice and an actual say in how your workplace should be run,” said Danny Cordova, a member of CUPS Cooperative Inc, the workers cooperative that now owns the shop. The cooperative was born out of the original service workers union White Electric workers created last year. White Electric is now the first workers cooperative coffee shop in the city and the state. “We live in a democracy. We vote for our representatives, we vote for senators, we vote for a president and why can’t we do the same thing [at work]? We can’t vote for CEOs, we can’t vote for managers, and you can get fired for any reason,” continued Cordova.

Under the new cooperative structure, there’s no single owner of the business. Each worker is also an owner with equal say in how it is run. There are no managers, and no one is above anyone else in the workplace. Day-to-day operations behind the counter were largely self-directed before it became a cooperative, as all the worker-owners draw from a rich past experience in food service. Much of the division of labor for them now comes from tasks that management or owners typically would do.

“Working in a cafe is not inherently a menial job, there’s no reason for it not to be a respectful  job,” said Amanda Soule, another worker-owner of the cooperative. “People don’t respect coffee shop workers generally, and I think that that is often inherent in the structure of the cafe itself.” 

White Electric’s workers didn’t originally intend to form a cooperative. Last year the shop closed due to COVID restrictions, and reopened in June. In the interim, George Floyd was murdered and protests for racial justice were kicking off everywhere. Inspired by the movement, White Electric’s workers started reaching out to managers about workplace issues. Then-employees also wrote an internal letter asking for diverse hiring practices, anti-racism, sick pay and wheelchair access to the shop, among other requests. 

Management soon after laid off a lot of the workers. In response, workers started to organize and form a union. “[We wanted] to make sure people’s jobs would be protected beyond any of us as individuals and to make sure the things we had been asking for would actually be implemented,” said Chloe Chassaing, a worker-owner.

Workers received a lot of community support at this time as they formed the union, and much of the customer base of White Electric are fellow service workers. White Electric’s then-owners voluntarily recognized the union. In August, the union performed a card check so that it would be officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That same night, the owners sent out an email listing White Electric for sale.

But the owners were willing to sell to a worker’s cooperative, which was one of the suggestions workers made in they letter they wrote earlier in the year. Efforts to form a union changed gears entirely to start a cooperative. CUPS started raising money that autumn. A GoFundMe with the explicit mission of turning White Electric into a workers’ cooperative raised $25,000, and other funding came from bank loans. For months, it was not clear the shop would become a cooperative, with CUPS only reaching a sale agreement this past January. Closing date was mid-April, and the cooperative has been rushing to get the necessary permits to reopen.

The cooperative started with eight worker-owners. When White Electric announced they were hiring, they got more than 60 applicants in the first three days, seemingly defying the current popular media narrative of people preferring to stay on unemployment. The worker owners have pledged to pay above minimum wage, but see workplace democracy and culture as integral to its attractiveness for prospective employees.

“It’s not that people don’t want to go back to a food service job, it’s that people don’t want to go back to being disrespected by their employers and their customers every day,” said Soule. “There’s a bunch of people we interviewed on unemployment because they know this is a different kind of work environment.”

Any new employees will be tried out for six months before receiving the full share of ownership in the cooperative. The system for pay increases in the past left a lot of inequities, and the cooperative intends to make the process transparent and fair. In addition to base pay and tips, each worker-owner of the cooperative is entitled to a share of the money left over every year. But as with any new business, it might take a year or two before that happens. Worker-owners can also expect a set schedule, as opposed to some of the flexible schedules found in most mainstream coffee shops.

“We just work as a team, and that’s been a very winning strategy for a very long time,” said Cordova.

44% of RI Fully Vaccinated: A summary of the governor’s weekly COVID-19 press conference

State leaders gave the weekly COVID press conference today, updating Rhode Islanders on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and local government response.

Numbers continue to drop as the state’s vaccine campaign ramps up. “We’re in a really good place right now,” said Dr Philip Chan, filling in today for DoH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. DoH reports 264 cases since yesterday, with a percent positive in tests of 1.4%, the lowest since the week of October 11, before this past winter’s second surge. Fatalities and hospitalization rates have dropped significantly for at-risk groups locally. There are 150 people hospitalized as of today; 32 people are in the intensive care unit and 20 people are on ventilators. State leaders have also reported one additional death since yesterday. Daily deaths overall have hovered in the mid-to-low single digits since early February.

Two-thirds of eligible Rhode Islanders have received at least one vaccine dose as of today, with 44% now considered fully vaccinated. State leaders today also announced that last week, more vaccines were administered than any week since the start of the campaign. COVID vax czar Tom McCarthy stated the state was now transitioning quickly into phase three of  vaccine operations, with the intended goal of meeting people where they are. The governor announced they were partnering with local businesses, universities, schools and others to bring vaccine events and get the word out.

Appointments for vaccinations will also not be required at retail pharmacies, McKee announced today. Walk-up, same-day appointments will be available at participating retail pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Stop and Shop as supply allows. This is a big expansion after the state tried walk-up appointments at state sites in the Dunkin Donuts Center and Sockanosset.

Governor McKee had only a few new announcements today. The CDC updated its guidance earlier this week to loosen some mask-wearing recommendations for fully vaccinated people. Rhode Island health officials revised state guidance to align with the CDC effective tomorrow, April 30. Mask wearing will be required indoors, but only recommended outdoors in big crowds for folks who are fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated in Rhode Island terms means two weeks after receiving your final shot, whether it’s a second shot for Pfizer/Moderna vaccines or the single Johnson and Johnson. J&J vaccines are also back in the rotation. CDC and FDAs gave the green light for the single shot vaccine to start being administered again after a temporary pause from reports of six cases of extremely rare blood clotting disorders in certain patients. Rhode Island public health leaders today emphasized the vaccine is safe, and urged citizens to bring any concerns to their health care provider.

State leaders announced today that Rhode Island state beaches would be open at full capacity this summer, with masks not required for fully vaccinated residents except in congregate settings such as concession stands. Rhode Islanders can expect Roger Wheeler State Beach, Scarborough State Beach and Third Beach to open on May 15. All other state beaches will be fully opened starting Memorial Day weekend. “It’s not a Rhode island summer without Rhode Island beaches,” said McKee.

The governor today also stressed the need for Rhode Islanders to get back to work, citing concerns from local businesses that allege a labor shortage in certain precarious industries like food service. The governor, with partners in the state legislature, has introduced legislation that would enable people to work some hours and still “keep connected” to the unemployment insurance system. Toward the end of next month, McKee said they would start enforcing work search requirements for those on unemployment. “It’s time to get Rhode Islanders back to work safely,” said the governor.

Schools can expect to reopen fully in the fall, Commissioner Green announced today. Most schools across the state are back learning in person, after a robust campaign to get educators vaccinated. State education leaders will also be announcing in the future free summer programs for students statewide. The state is also starting a vaccine campaign in high schools to get of-age students and their families vaccinated. The state is running vaccination clinics at schools across the state if the municipality and district asks, and in the next week will be at schools in North Kingstown, Cranston, Cumberland (“Go Clippers!” chimed the governor) and others to come.

COVID Restriction Relaxations on the Horizon: A summary of the governor’s COVID-19 press conference

Memorial Day weekend, the state of Rhode Island is opening for business. Governor Dan McKee and state leaders announced today the relaxation of most major business restrictions by May 28. Today’s announcement is a big step up from the state’s prior goals. State officials were hoping to hit 70% vaccinations of all eligible adults by May 15 and 70% of all Rhode Islanders by June 5, but as of today, those goals have officially moved up one week.

“It’s a little early to put up the ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign,” said the governor. “But we’re getting ready to order the sign.”

On May 7 comes the first wave of COVID restriction relaxations. COVID mask-wearing orders for outdoors will go from required to recommended. Mask wearing will still be required across the state for indoor settings. Capacity limits across all industries will rise starting in early May, with businesses allowed up to 80% pre-pandemic capacity. Catered events will have limits capped at 200 for indoors, 500 for outdoors. Testing requirements for catered events will have their testing requirements removed except for cases of student catered events, such as proms or graduations. Outdoor bars can allow people to congregate.

On May 28 comes a big erosion of restrictions just in time for Memorial Day weekend. All capacity limits everywhere will be lifted as long as there is three feet of spacing. Masks still will be required for all indoor settings. The last group of high-risk school sports will also be allowed to open up with few safe modifications. This includes activities like karate. Out-of-state teams can start competing in state again, and spectators can include people beyond immediate family members. Additionally, plexiglass barriers can come down at bars, and dance floors can officially re-open.

“We recognize it’s time for our businesses to get some relief,” said DOH director Dr. Alexander-Scott during her announcements today.

More than half a million people have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of this week. One third of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, and state leaders stressed today the economic reopening was for fully vaccinated people. Seventy-five percent of appointments recently made thru the state’s vaccine site were for people between the ages of 16 and 39, the latest age group to be eligible. Twelve thousand new appointments go live tomorrow at and state-run sites. Coronavirus vaccine supply far outstrips demand, with thousands of appointments still available every day.

COVID response czar Tom McCarthy announced the state is piloting walk-up vaccination appointments at certain sites as the state continues to pile on its supply. The pilot program will be this Friday and Saturday at the Dunkin Donuts Center and Cranston sites. His team also is looking ahead toward integrating coronavirus doses into traditional medicine, akin to how flu shots are distributed every year. State leaders have nothing official to announce on a possible booster dose regimen for later this year.

“Vaccinations keep you safe. If you’re not vaccinated, you’re at risk.” said Governor McKee.

DoH reports 318 new cases of COVID-19 since yesterday out of more than 19,000 tests. The test positivity rate was 1.6%. New hospital admissions rose slightly compared to last week. There are 114 people hospitalized with the virus; 23 people are in the intensive care unit and 20 are on ventilators. State health leaders also report two additional deaths.

While state leaders presented a lot of good news today, they also constantly reminded the public that all of the relaxations count for people who are fully vaccinated. Dr. Alexander-Scott especially encouraged people to get vaccinated while acknowledging it was a personal choice. She asked people who are not fully vaccinated to think twice about going to busy places or into large crowds. The DoH director also warned that having COVID-19 in the past does not grant you immunity from new variants like the vaccines do. Fully vaccinated, health officials said today, means two weeks after your final dose of any vaccine regimen. 

“We’ve been together long enough,” said Dr. Alexander-Scott. “That we are confident that you have the information you need to make the right decision you need to make.”

Solidarity!: Protesters march for Adam Toledo

Activists flocked to the State House last night to hold a solidarity rally and march for Adam Toledo and other victims of police brutality. Toledo was a 13-year-old shot and killed by a Chicago police officer last month, with explicit body cam footage of the event only released last week. State and city law enforcement watched from inside the State House and the end of the mall.

The event was organized by Enriques Sanchez, a political activist and organizer with local direct action groups, shortly after he watched the body cam footage last Thursday. “It just continues the same pattern that Black and brown people continue to be pushed around, continue to be killed, continued to be executed by the police around the country,” he said in his opening remarks. There were no specific speakers for the rally, and there was an open invite to the crowd to speak.

“We have a right to rebel, we have a right to exist,” said one speaker from the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL). Others invoked the name of those killed by police violence: Tamir Rice, George Floyd and others. Youth advocates from the Providence Student Union strongly argued for the removal of student resource officers from public schools, alleging that the guns they carry were not the most dangerous thing, but the psychological impacts when students are arrested by officers in the school and taken out in handcuffs.

One speaker, an older, female POC, recounted the time a Providence College student called law enforcement on her after she asked the student to move his car from the front of her home. According to her account, five police officers showed up. “The system is broken,” she said. “It’s been broken.”

Protesters soon after marched across downtown, keeping to the right lines when possible, but for the most part taking up the street. The crowd marched down Francis Street passing the mall, with police cruisers slowly following behind. The march took a right onto Sabin, before going down Empire Street and turning northeast onto Weybosset. Protesters stopped in front of PPAC to hold a moment of silence. 

Throughout the march, protesters chanted, “No justice, no peace,” and promised the “pigs” (law enforcement) that “we’ll be back!” as they passed police stationed along the route.

Two members of noted far-right extremist group the Proud Boys were embedded inside the march from the beginning. While the march was stopped in front of PPAC by the corner of Richmond Street, Sanchez identified them in the crowd for the benefit of the marchers and politely asked the two Proud Boys to walk away. The crowd chanted, “Fascists go home, racists go home,” and a small segment chased them back down Weybosset where they got into a car and drove away.

The march resumed without any other incident. Protesters went down Weybosset, pausing at the corner of Westminster and Exchange streets, before crossing over to Memorial Boulevard where they followed the river back to Providence Place. Back in front of the State House, there were a few more speakers and a third moment of silence.

The Number of Vaccinated Rhode Islanders Continues to Climb: A summary of the governor’s COVID-19 briefing

Vaccinations continue to climb in the state, but we can’t seem to shake slowly rising COVID-19 case numbers. State leaders at the weekly press briefing today announced 428 new cases of the virus since the previous day. Percent positivity remains hovering around 1.9%. While case numbers have broadly plateaued, hospitalizations and fatalities are shrinking. There are 138 people hospitalized with the virus, 30 in ICU, 24 on ventilators. 

“Fatalities are down 94% compared to their peak in December,” said Dr. Alexander-Scott, further stating she remains unfazed by the consistently stable case numbers as long as percent positivity of all tests remains as low as it is. The RIDOH director credited case numbers staying the same day-to-day with Rhode Island’s small, densely populated area, noting many new cases come from younger Rhode Islanders who haven’t been eligible for the vaccine yet.

On Monday state leaders are widening the vaccine pool to anyone over the age of 16, a group the state estimates to be around 258,000. The state administered 79,000 doses last week of all vaccines, and is on track to administer 68,000 this week. Interested Rhode Islanders on Monday have the option of signing up for a vaccine through the state’s online pre-registration system.

The Janssen vaccine or Johnson and Johnson vaccine was put on pause across the nation earlier this week as federal health officials examine the risk from rare blood disorders causing blood clots. Dr. Alexander-Scott emphasized that the vaccine is safe for everyone, nationwide less than one in a million people are at risk. The pause was to educate healthcare providers on the signs of the rare blood clotting disorder, who to look out for, and what the necessary treatment is. Meanwhile the state will put its doses of Johnson and Johnson into refrigerated storage where it will have a shelf life of three months. State health officials expect the pause to be lifted well before then.

No-shows at state vaccine appointments are slowly rising, according to Tom McCarthy, the state’s executive director of COVID response. Crediting the rise in vaccine availability, no-shows to state appointments have risen from 10% to 13%. McCarthy encouraged people to cancel their appointments if they need to for any reason.

Gov. McKee announced a new vaccine equity initiative. With some federal funding, starting on Monday, RIPTA will provide free bus rides to people going to or from their vaccine appointments. Many of the pharmacy and state vaccine sites are on already existing bus routes. Passengers should first make a vaccine appointment and provide that information to RIPTA’s customer service representatives by email ( or by calling 401-781-9400. An eight dollar value will be loaded onto the a Wave smart fare card “This is a big win for Rhode Island vaccine efforts,” said McKee.

Today also marked the launch at 3pm of the state’s latest round of COVID relief grants. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor announced the Relief RI grants earlier this week. State leaders set aside $20 million from CARES Act money to award $5,000 grants to 4,000 businesses. To qualify, a business’s gross receipts must be less than a million dollars a year, and they must show a decline in receipts from 2019 to 2020. Additionally, they must still show a need for a $5,000 grant, and show that other forms of aid such as EIDL loans.

McKee encouraged people to make Mother’s Day reservations at restaurants today, as he expects the state’s economic opening to continue as vaccinations continue to rise. Additionally, McKee said today under questioning that he expects the RI Convention Center to be dismantled for COVID operations soon. The RFP for it went out next week, and the Center should be ready for hosting events again starting in August.

Protesters Gather on the State House Lawn: Rhode Islanders gather in solidarity to protest the killing of Daunte Wright

Hundreds of activists and protesters gathered last night at the State House in response to the killing of Daunte Wright. Wright was killed on Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, during a traffic stop, where it’s alleged Officer Kimberly Potter fired her service weapon, which she mistook for her taser. The Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC organized the event to stand in solidarity with people in Minnesota who have protested outside the Brooklyn Corner police precinct for the last four nights.

“This country, this state is sick — sick with white supremacy,” said BLM RI PAC’s executive director Harrison Tuttle on the south State House steps. The PAC is composed of young Rhode Islanders of color, with the intended aim to end systemic racism and support progressives running for office.

Local activists are long past being simply fed up, with anger focused on law enforcement, state leaders and systemic racism. “Everything I can say to you, you already know,” said Rodney Newton, one of the speakers last night. He called for people in the crowd to aggressively combat racism and hold state leaders accountable for systemic racism. “Don’t be an ally,” he said. “Be an accomplice.”

Other speakers encouraged more people to run for office. Miguel Sanchez called for people to organize and mobilize for Providence residents, saying there were eight city council seats and the mayor’s office up for election in 2022. Activists promised to primary elected leaders who did not do enough to combat systemic racism or help distressed communities.

Providence Police held a minor presence throughout the rally, and were a frequent target of activists’ criticisms surrounding the killing of Daunte Wright. Sanchez cited Tuesday’s public safety report. The report, compiled by Public Financial Management, was the result of a seven-month audit dedicated to analyzing the city’s spending in its public safety operations. Sanchez emphasized the service call statistics in the report. While less than 4% of all calls for service were for violent crime, 4.6% of calls were for loud music. “We don’t need to send people with guns to civilian homes for loud music,” said Sanchez.

Activists allege that the kind of police violence that happened to Daunte Wright happens in Rhode Island now. They argue that Jhamal Gonsalves crashed because of police actions, that Providence Police shot out a protester’s eye last summer, that law enforcement endangered civilians during peaceful protests by attempting to drive into protesters, and then there’s Joshua Robinson. 

Robinson was stopped at a traffic stop in March 2013 and was subsequently beaten by officers after they suspected him of swallowing drugs (no drugs were found on Robinson and a medical exam showed none in his system). He later sued the city of Providence, with the city settling for $72,500 in 2019.

Rep. David Morales (District 7, Providence) asked rhetorically what the cops at the end of the mall were scared of. “They have all the power, but they act like the victims,” he said. Morales went on to call for the repeal of the law enforcement bill of rights, and for reallocating police funds, alleging that law enforcement sees increased budgets, while state Medicaid faces cuts multiple years in a row, education remains underfunded and Providence still has lead in water pipes.

The crowd was composed of young people carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “Fuck the Police,” “Blue Lies Matter” and other similar sentiments. Protesters were entirely peaceful and the rally ended just before dark without incident.

“Making Great Progress”: A summary of Governor McKee’s weekly COVID press conference

Governor Dan McKee, DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, COVID Response Executive Director Tom McCarthy, RIDE Commissioner Angelica Infante Green and Commerce director Stefan Pryor gave the weekly COVID-19 press conference today.

COVID cases are slowly on the rise across the state. DOH reports 360 new cases since yesterday with a percent positive test rate of 2.1%. Case numbers continue to hover between 300 and 400 new cases daily. There are 154 people hospitalized for reasons associated with the coronavirus. Dr. Alexander-Scott noted today state health officials are also seeing hospitalizations starting to tick up, and younger people are making up those hospitalizations. It’s uniform statewide, 19 out of the state’s 39 cities and towns saw significant increases in COVID cases over the last five weeks.

Metrics like hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, they don’t go up or down for weeks after case numbers do. There are 28 people in the intensive care unit and 21 are on ventilators. There was also one additional death since yesterday.

Gov. McKee and other state leaders set bold goals today. By May 16, 70% of all Rhode Island adults age 16 and over will have received their first dose and let two weeks pass. By June 5, this number will be 70% of all Rhode Islanders, including teens and young children. 

McCarthy said he is “confident we can transition from COVID response to recovery” if the state hits the stated goals.

The ambitious goal comes after the rollout that some big summer events, such as Newport Folk and Jazz Fests will be returning in a diminished capacity this summer. The governor promised proms and graduations will be able to happen this year, although proms themselves are expected to have more restrictions. 

“We’re making great progress [in vaccinating Rhode Islanders],” said McKee.

State leaders today announced 20,000 new vaccine appointments would be made available at 5pm starting on the state’s vaccine appointment website. Vaccine eligibility is also being expanded to additional ZIP codes. Starting tomorrow, specific ZIP codes in Woonsocket will open vaccine eligibility, and more across Providence, Cranston, North Providence, East Providence and Johnston ZIP codes starting Monday. On Monday, Rhode Islanders 40 and older will be eligible to start making vaccine appointments. 

The state’s vaccine pre-registration list recently sent out its first notifications of appointment availability. McCarthy also addressed the accidental cancellations yesterday. Earlier this week, cancellation notices went out to people in communities of color. McCarthy stated today those appointments were not cancelled, and they are reaching out to connect those people with appointments.

Events are slowly starting to happen. Events where food will not be served will have three phases from now until May 15. Limits will be 250 indoors, 500 outdoors. Once the state hits the 70% benchmark on May 16, it will double to 500 indoors, 1,000 outdoors. Commencement ceremonies with more than 500 people need to have plans approved by the state.

She Works Hard for the Money: Decriminalization and changing public attitudes makes sex work safer for everyone

Sex work is real work, and it’s tougher than ever.

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on sex worker incomes and safety. Clients have dwindled during the pandemic, so sex workers literally can’t afford to be choosy, taking on more and more dangerous clients, some of whom may not be compliant with COVID-safe protocols, which adds additional risk. Sex workers already faced a legislative onslaught in the years prior to the pandemic, as more laws restricted their capacity to work safely. 

Sex workers “are really caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Ariela Moscowitz, spokeswoman for Decriminalize Sex Work, a national organization dedicated to decriminalizing and improving public attitudes toward sex work.

Digital and online sex work saw an explosion last year. Sites like PornHub and OnlyFans, digital spaces where sex workers can sell from the safety of their homes, have always had a presence online. As the economy crashed due to COVID restrictions, digital sex work became an attractive alternative. With people losing jobs, having difficulty making ends meet or living in places with few social safety nets, many people new to sex work turned to sites like OnlyFans to keep afloat financially.

OnlyFans has been around since 2016, and the company estimates its content creator base rose 40% when the pandemic started. The site works similar to Patreon: Content creators set the price they want to charge for content, and users choose to subscribe. OnlyFans takes a flat 20% from creators’ earnings. The company doesn’t release website metrics, but they claim to have 24 million unique users. In 2019, it paid out $725 million to content creators, and was on track in 2020 to pay out more than one billion dollars.

But that explosive growth didn’t come without a backlash. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote an op-ed/investigatory piece in December alleging websites like PornHub and OnlyFans contained videos of rape, underage pornography and revenge porn. As a result of the article, Visa and Mastercard disallowed the two websites to use their services for processing payments.

Digital sex work is legal, and users must follow many of the same laws that other user-generated content sites follow. Decriminalization advocates note that many of the complaints lodged in Kristoff’s original piece are already illegal. Forty-six states, plus Washington, DC and one overseas territory have laws against revenge porn on the books. Explicit content featuring a minor is a felony under federal law, which carries a penalty of fines and up to 30 years in prison, and requires registration on a sex offender list.

The backlash extended all the way to the United State Senate. Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Ben Sasse of Nebraska introduced the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation (SISE) Act in December of last year. A press release provided from the senator’s offices repeat many of the allegations in Kristof’s article. If passed, websites would have to have much more stringent safeguards in place, prohibit video downloading and acquire consent forms from all content participants. SISE did not leave committee before the end of the session, and has yet to be re-introduced this year; however, legal observers could point out that many of the bill’s provisions already are law.

Prior to COVID, online sex work and traditional sex work had become increasingly criminalized and made unsafe due to a series of federal laws and pushbacks. Federal law SESTA-FOSTA, passed in 2018, resulted in PayPal restricting sex worker payments, and social media websites such as Reddit and Tumblr banned users from uploading on their websites most types of explicit content.

Some states, including New York, have introduced partial decriminalization legislation in recent years. Partial decriminalization is more commonly known as the Nordic model, the buyer end model or the entrapment model popularized by the Nordic countries. The model criminalizes the buyer, not the seller, with the intended goal of eroding sex work’s prevalence. 

“[The Nordic model] doesn’t do anything for the health and safety of the sex workers,” says Moscowitz. Sex workers and would still have to worry about their clients getting arrested, and clients might not participate in actions or behaviors that make sex workers feel safe, such as using real names or meeting in places where sex workers feel comfortable.

Rhode Island notably legalized indoor prostitution from 1980 and 2009, but it only really became known in 2003, when four women arrested at Providence spas had their case thrown out because state courts ruled Rhode Island had no laws prohibiting sex work. A 2017 research paper published in the Review of Economic Studies found that in the six-year period between 2003 and 2009, sexual violence declined by 30% and rates of female gonorrhea declined by more than 40% in Rhode Island.

“We’re always pushing sex work to be seen as work,” says Moscowitz, “and to improve the health and safety of sex workers and communities at large. We know full decriminalization leads to a decrease in trafficking.”

McKee Chooses Matos for Lieutenant Governor: Matos now faces a confirmation process

Providence City Council President Sabina Matos is officially Gov. Dan McKee’s pick for lieutenant governor. “I know Sabina will be a true partner in governing, who is prepared to work closely with our administration starting from day one,” said the governor in a State House press conference Wednesday morning.

The announcement comes after weeks of political speculation and comparisons to any pundit’s reality show of choice. McKee’s team had opened the process statewide, and received more than 75 applications for lieutenant governor. The four others who made the shortlist were Middletown State Senator Louis DiPalma, PVD Rep Grace Diaz, former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, and Elizabeth Beretta Perik, a notable Democratic party fundraiser. News originally broke of Matos as the nominee last night, with a press conference introducing her this morning in front of the State House on Smith Street.

Matos, if confirmed, will be the first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor in Ocean State history. She has represented Ward 15 (Olneyville and Valley areas) on the Providence City Council since 2010. She was elected president of the council in 2019. A first generation immigrant, Matos moved to the United States in 1994 from the Dominican Republic. Originally living in New York City, she moved to Rhode Island, where she graduated from Rhode Island College in 2001 with a BA in communications and public relations. She obtained United States citizenship in 2005.

The nomination throws chaos into a highly anticipated election year in 2022. Matos was term-limited in her council seat, and widely expected to run for mayor in the next cycle. Her appointment to a State House office takes her out of the running, leaving only three people running for mayor. The three mayoral candidates remaining are Brett Smiley, Gonzalo Cuervo, and Nirva LaFortunte. Councilman John Igliozzi is expected to become acting council president following Matos’ vacancy. Igliozzi is chairman of the powerful finance committee and has served on the council since 1997. It’s unclear if Igliozzi will have the support when a vote takes place for a permanent replacement. Ward 15 will also have a special election in the future at a date to be determined, the city’s third in two years.

Statewide, it remains to be seen if Matos will help McKee clinch another term as governor next year. Matos is a noted conservative Democrat, and similar to McKee, a big proponent of charter schools. The governor will be running as an incumbent next year, but still faces tough primary challenges from Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. The field for lieutenant governor is still primordial, with Aaron Regunberg being the only one to form an exploratory committee.

Matos now faces a confirmation process through the RI Senate, which will operate like a traditional Senate confirmation hearing. While it’s currently unclear which specific committee will be assigned the nomination process, that committee, when announced, will hold a review process, including a public hearing on the nomination. Once passed by the committee, the nomination goes to the Senate for a full floor vote. It is unknown what Matos’ timeline for confirmation looks like; as of this writing the RI Senate has not received the appointment from the governor.