WARWICK, R.I. – Lou Senerchia always looks forward to the seasonal migration back to his warm-weather home in Rhode Island, and the Florida snowbird wasn’t about to let a little quarantine spoil the springtime ritual.
“Whatever’s gotta get done is going to get done,” said Senerchia, a surgical mask dangling from his neck after his flight landed at T.F. Green Airport. “It’s always good to be home.”
Senerchia and his wife, Cynthia, of Coventry, were in the first group of domestic travelers to reach the airport Tuesday who face mandatory 14-day quarantines in attempts to check the spread of Covid-19 – the latest in a series of directives from Gov. Gina Raimondo that have thrown the economy – and much or ordinary life – into a tailspin.
The retirees were among 18 passengers on a Northwest Airlines flight from Orlando that reached the airport less than three hours after the directive went into effect, at 7 a.m. As they descended the elevators to the lobby, they were intercepted by members of the Rhode Island National Guard.
Armed not with weapons but pens and paper, the soldiers politely asked the passengers a few questions – Where are you coming from? Where are you going? How can we get in touch with you? – before sending them home to two weeks of isolation.
As the Rhode Island Department of Health recorded 18 new cases of Covid-19 Tuesday, bringing the total to 124, health officials say the quarantines – and the data the Guard is collecting – could be vital in tamping down the spread of the virus. Should any of the travelers develop symptoms of Covid-19, they could be tested. If the results are positive, authorities could use the personal information to hunt for other individuals from whom those who are sick might have picked up the infection and, theoretically, place them in quarantine as well.
Speaking at the daily Covid-19 press briefing at the State House yesterday, Health Director Nicole Alexander Scott said the quarantine protocols for domestic travelers are a critical component of Raimondo’s plan to begin slowly reviving the economy on the path forward.
“It is critical that everyone follow these instructions,” Alexander Scott said. “We are seeing more association with domestic travel than we are with international travel.”
The health director said RIDOH is “expanding a robust contact tracing team” as part of the Covid-19 containment strategy, calling the move “the key” to be able to nudge the economy back to life.
The Senerchias knew they were facing a minimum of 14 days in home-quarantine before they decided to fly home, so they weren’t surprised. They both expressed strong support for the idea and a willingness to do their part, saying the isolation will protect their health and, potentially, that of others.
“My daughter got me groceries, so I think I’ll be fine,” Cynthia said.
As 70-somethings, the Senerchias know their age puts them at a high risk for developing serious complications from Covid-19, so they’re on board with a quarantine.
And it won’t be that different from the conditions they just left at their home in The Villages, a densely-populated housing complex north of Orlando. The retirement community is legendary for offering an epic number of activities for its city-size population, but the Senerchias say life there has come to a virtual standstill.
“The villages are completely dead,” Lou Senerchia said, and for that reason, they came back to Coventry a little sooner than they normally would have this year.
But not everyone aboard the Senerchias’ flight knew what was in store for them when they reached Rhode Island.
“Hesitant, but cooperative,” was how RI National Guard specialist Geoffrey Canham described their reaction when the passengers found out why soldiers were there to greet them.
David Lawrence and his wife Gail, more snowbirds who were flying back to their seasonal home in Sterling, Maine, said he didn’t find out until the plane was in their air. He was watching MSNBC and saw Gov. Raimondo being interviewed for a new story about the state’s clampdown.
As an individual with who suffers from some of those much-talked-about “underlying conditions” that appear to put individuals at greater risk for Covid-19 complications, Lawrence quickly embraced Raimondo’s call to hunker down.
“Kudos to her,” said Lawrence. “I’m a diabetic. I have kidney issues. I don’t want to take unnecessary chances.”
The quarantine for domestic travelers mirrors that which had been in effect for about two weeks regarding international travelers, except that public safety workers, health care workers and airline pilots are exempt. Lawrence called it “a good idea” and indicated that he wouldn’t mind at all if President Trump did more to make sure the infection is contained and put less emphasis on putting people back to work.
The guard came with a contingent of 15 soldiers to jot down information from passengers throughout the day. RI Guard Public Information Officers Mark Incze said manpower could be adjusted if the flight schedules suggest a rush of arrivals.
“People have been good,” said Incze. “I think everyone is eager to participate in whatever measures the Rhode Island Department of Health recommends.”
Another passenger was Don Dooley, who manages the Wrentham Village shopping center for Simon Properties. He came with a wife and two small children in what’s now shaping up as a case of unfortunate timing, because they were looking to buy a new home in a job-related relocation. The real estate market is chilling up, at least temporarily, Realtors say.
In addition to a quarantine with his family at his parents’ home in nearby Massachusetts, Dooley says he faces conditions very different than those in the state he just left. Although Disney World was among the first corporate giants in the nation to shut down due to Covid-19, until a few days ago the atmosphere in Florida seemed to be sort of “business as usual” in many areas.
Florida, however, appears to be catching up to Rhode Island, which some independent organizations have given high marks for its aggressive approach to Covid-19.
When they left from Orlando International Airport yesterday morning, the place hardly lived up to its reputation as one of the nation’s busiest travel hubs.
“This is the first time we got there, it looked completely dead,” said Dooley.