NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — What was anticipated to be a lively debate and controversial vote in Narragansett, potentially setting up a clash between the town and Gov. Gina Raimondo, fizzled Monday when the Town Council president pulled his measure designed to stop police from issuing fines over Raimondo’s executive orders for COVID-19 restrictions.
President Matthew Mannix withdrew the resolution before the rest of the council or the public, which numbered more than 300 participants on Zoom, had a chance to speak about it.
“Over the last 72 hours three of my colleagues indicated on WPRO they would not be supporting this resolution,” Mannix said. “I’ve always been practical in my seven years on the council, so I have no desire to waste people’s time discussing an item we know is not going to pass.”
The proposal by Mannix drew state and national media attention and earned a rebuke from Raimondo.
Mannix wanted the council specifically to order police to not issue fines or violations “based on the restrictions imposed on places of worship, restaurants, retail establishments and other small businesses by the Executive Orders of the State of Rhode Island issued branch since the Cornovirus (sic) pandemic began,” according to the proposed resolution.
In remarks before he withdrew the resolution, Mannix said the impetus for sponsoring it was the harm he said the orders were doing to the “emotional, spiritual and financial well-being” of local residents.
“In my conversations with residents, members of law enforcement and medical professionals, I learned that other societal ills — depression, domestic abuse, substance abuse and anxiety — have been exacerbated by this lockdown,” he said. He noted that people are unable to visit sick or dying loved ones in hospitals and to attend their funerals because of the restrictions.
“The emotional toll of not being able to be at the bedside of a loved one is something some people never get over,” he said.
Mannix insisted that the “emotional, spiritual and financial harms” must be discussed, and that they are as or more serious than the physical threat of the virus.
He also cited case law regarding the relationship between federal and state law as the basis for the move.
“Just as the federal government cannot conscript state law enforcement agencies, state government cannot conscript the police force of an individual city or town to enforce orders,” he said, but added that the resolution doesn’t absolve private entities such as businesses and churches from enacting safety measures such as cleaning and requiring patrons to wear masks.
Mannix initially described the move as necessary “due to the negative impact of these Executive Orders on the First Amendment right to worship, on the constitutionally recognized right to travel and on our free enterprise economy,” and cited “many cumbersome restrictions on places of worship, restaurants, retail establishments and other small businesses,” involved in the first phase of reopening the economy, which began May 9. Executive orders which imposed stay-at-home directives on Rhode Islanders and visitors to Rhode Island expired on May 8.
Raimondo reacted to the proposed resolution on May 15, calling it “reckless” in remarks during the question and answer part of the state’s daily COVID-19 briefing.
“That’s a huge mistake,” Raimondo said. “Like I said, we are trying to encourage voluntary compliance, we are trying not to be heavy handed. That is not based on fact, science, good analysis and it’s so selfish to all the people of Rhode Island who have worked so hard for so long, putting their lives on hold, their children’s education in their home, their businesses on hold so we could all be safe.”
Toward the end of the meeting, in the open forum portion where people can speak on any issue, at least one resident and a council member addressed the resolution.
“There was no opportunity for others to comment because you withdrew it,” resident Sue Amoruso said. “Technically it was correct, but it was very one-sided. A lot of people texted me and said, ‘Is this it, we don’t get to express our opinion?’”
Councilor Patrick Murray said Raimondo has done a good job “bringing the curve downward,” but that he is glad Mannix introduced the resolution.
“This is a conversation we need to have about the opening of the state, sooner than later,” he said.