COVID-19 pandemic

RI Enters Phase 1 of Reopening: The rules are clear, but poorly communicated

“Phase One info ReopeningRI.com” highway sign, I-95 northbound;
Photo credit: Michael Bilow

RI Gov. Gina Raimondo allowed her stay-at-home executive order to expire March 8, the next day beginning “Phase 1” of at least three such phases, each expected to last at least two weeks. On April 27, she laid out six specific criteria that all had to be met before any of the phased reopening could start:

  1. Has the rate of spread continued to decrease?
  2. Do we have the capacity to quickly identify community spread on an ongoing basis before a major outbreak occurs?
  3. Do we have the necessary supports in place for vulnerable populations and for anyone in quarantine?
  4. Does our healthcare system have the capacity and the PPE to handle future surges?
  5. Do businesses, schools, childcare sites, faith organizations and recreational spaces have plans for long-term social distancing?
  6. Are we prepared to reimpose measures, or reclose certain sectors of the economy, if it becomes necessary?

While the state has attempted to collect all information onto one website at ReOpeningRI.com, accessing it requires downloading two dozen separate PDF files, most of which are formatted as PowerPoint-like slide presentations and at least one of which is formatted as an eight-page legal regulatory document. The practical effect is that it is impossible to read or comprehend the rules in the natural way as text in a web browser, but instead the state seems to expect business owners to print them onto paper and use them that way. Many of these documents incorporate by reference other web pages and documents, and of course links cannot be followed from printouts.

Rolling out rules, especially for certain industry sectors, has been staggered so as to add significant confusion. While general retail stores were allowed under rules published May 6 to reopen May 9 as long as they completed a four-page checklist, signed it and kept the result on file, and followed a one-page checklist to screen each worker for symptoms, these documents and the rules governing them were not finally released until the evening of May 13. Special rules for restaurants were contained in a four-page document released on the evening of May 11 to go into effect May 18.

Phase 1, the governor repeatedly emphasized, will not look much different from the stay-at-home order that was allowed to expire. Hospitals and medical facilities will be allowed to resume non-critical care that had been deferred, an important source of revenue the suspension of which threatened to cause or actually caused layoffs among healthcare workers, such as physical therapists, not directly involved in treating COVID-19 patients. Non-critical retail, such as bookstores and clothing stores, are allowed to reopen with strict in-store capacity limits. Some child care is supposed to be allowed to resume, but the rules for that do not yet seem to have been released. Religious services are allowed to resume if they involve five or fewer total attendees, and funerals are allowed to resume if they involve 10 or fewer attendees (in addition to staff not counted against the limit). Offices can allow limited in-person visits, such as to pick up documents or equipment, but working from home is still required if possible. State parks will reopen for “active use only, such as walking, hiking, biking and fishing.” Summer recreational facilities, such as campgrounds and drive-in movie theaters, may open with restrictions. Golf courses, although subject to restrictions, never closed.

Phase 1 notably does not reopen any “close-contact” businesses such as barbers, hair salons, nail salons, tattoo shops, gyms and fitness studios, nor does it include recreational and entertainment businesses such as live theaters, movie theaters (other than drive-in) and concert venues.

Gatherings of more than five people (except for funerals) remain prohibited in Phase 1.

Restaurants have been allowed since the closure of dine-in operations weeks ago to offer take-away, curbside pickup and delivery, and to serve beer and wine in sealed containers; Phase 1 extends this to mixed drinks in sealed containers. The change attracting most attention in Phase 1 is that restaurants will be allowed to have outdoor dine-in facilities subject to restrictions on tables: reservation-only; separated by 8 feet (to keep people, including servers, 6 feet apart); limited to five diners per table; limited to 20 tables per establishment. Non-traditional outdoor seating, such as on sidewalks or in parking lots, is expected to be facilitated by local municipalities. Menus, silverware and dishware must be disposable or thoroughly sanitized for each use. Valet parking is prohibited.

On the one hand, Gov. Raimondo has done extremely well with the most important aspects of handling the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. On March 11, when there were only five cases in RI, she explained her overall strategy that she then followed with absolute consistency: “The number one goal, right now, is containment… We only have one chance to contain this. This is one shot.” The United States as a whole, due to across-the-board incompetence within multiple agencies of the federal government, is three months behind where it should be on testing for the virus. If there had been adequate testing early, the national strategy would have been to identify and isolate those infected for the two weeks or so it took for them to recover to the point they were no longer shedding virus particles that could infect others. Because that first line of defense was unavailable, it was necessary to fall back to the second line of defense, which was to assume that everybody was potentially infected and therefore to quarantine everybody, shutting down the economy at tremendous cost. State governors had to play the hands they were dealt.

Obviously, total economic shutdown is unsustainable for longer than a few weeks and the governor has repeatedly acknowledged that, clearly saying that the purpose of the economic shutdown was to buy time to build capacity in hospitals to cope with a demand surge for beds and ventilators should it arise, and to build testing capacity. RI has been the national leader on testing, with high-capacity drive-through testing sites able to process hundreds of patients per day as well as smaller local clinics serving hard-hit urban communities. Testing leads to contact tracing and consequent testing, further identifying and isolating those who would otherwise spread the virus. Ahead of neighboring states, RI has concentrated its efforts exactly in the testing and contact tracing prerequisite to reopening the economy safely.

The key, as state leaders have made clear, is that the public is being trusted to continue to limit social circles to a group of at most five people, wear face coverings in public, keep private contact tracing notebooks, otherwise avoid unnecessary exposure to other people, and observe hand washing and 6-foot separation. Unlike other states, RI never closed economic activities such as factories and construction.

On the other hand, RI has dropped the ball on clearly communicating expectations to the public. It is absurd to structure the principal website for delivering information to the public, especially business owners, so as to trap important information inside a couple of dozen PDF files, let alone derive them from PowerPoint-like slides, rather than just present the information as text pages. RI really needs to get its web design out of the 1990s.

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