As coronavirus cases rise in the state, local businesses, health care providers and government officials are bracing for the effects to ripple through the local economy and residents’ day-to-day lives.
The sentiment expressed by many in leadership in these organizations is that they hope there are lessons learned from earlier this year and that draconian shut-downs don’t occur, but that they are preparing for the worst.
“What I’m hearing from the business community is that they are fearing something is coming. It’s the unknown,” said Joseph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.
Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager, echoing the sentiments of other local officials, said, “The answer to all of this is that government and business have to unfortunately live this one day at time and rise to each new challenge.”
The challenges ahead, both Viele, Zarnetske and others across business, health and government sectors said, are tempered by the recent news that a vaccine is on the long-term time horizon.
“With vaccines coming on line, we’re looking ahead to the spring when they are available for large-scale distribution. Right now we’ve got to get through this harsh New England winter,” Zarnetske told The Independent this week.
Each week he and other town managers from around the region have a conference call to discuss pressing issues and potential solutions. He said his colleagues have similar views about the short-term and long-term prospects of dealing with the resurgence in the virus.
In both practical and political ways, they are also following cues from state officials in terms of ways to deal with rising cases.
“We are not going to jump ahead of the state. We are one big community in Rhode Island,” he said.
Gov. Gina Raimondo has recently given gloomy assessments for the state.
“Our emergency rooms are being pushed to their limits, and the pain and suffering in our hospitals and our communities is significant. Our case numbers and hospitalizations are skyrocketing, and our hospitals are near their capacity,” she said.
The state reports that just for the towns of South Kingstown, Narragansett, South Kingstown and nearby Charlestown, significant increases in reports in the rate of COVID-19 cases. These exclude nursing homes and other congregate settings.
Narragansett has seen the most dramatic increases, which began shortly after resumption of classes at the University of Rhode Island as well as in local schools.
Narragansett Town Manager James Tierney has said that his town’s numbers have been mostly tied to URI students, with 70 percent attributed to them since late August.
North Kingstown followed next trailed by South Kingstown with overall lower numbers and Charlestown showing the week of November 1 its first significant increase since tallying began in March.
Local Businesses and Religious Services
At the Mews restaurant, business manager George McAuliffe said, “it’s obviously not good for us.”
Colder weather is coming, restrictions on indoor dining exist and people’s fears about going into restaurants, retail stores and inside other businesses still persist.
“It’s one of those things. It’s week to week, you never know what she’s going to impose,” he said about state orders through the Department of Business Regulation that can curb hours and service, which in turn reduce profit and put a strain on businesses ability to continue operations.
McAuliffe said while he believes the Mews can carry through some continued rough times, he thinks that smaller mom-and-pop operations may have more difficulty.
Not far away at the Contemporary Theater in Wakefield, Chris Simpson, founder and artistic director, has said he has had to dramatically scale back operations to keep afloat while also offering some outdoor performances that the cold weather will bring to an end.
Going indoors to the main theater is not an option because of the close seating and his desire to focus on keeping a COVID-free environment as much as possible.
Local funeral homes are also feeling the stress again for telling families that goodbyes to loved ones must be limited.
“Reducing the capacity from 66% to 50%, while not a massive decrease, does further limit the amount of people that can be present for their loved one’s service. This applies to churches as well,” said Anthony J. Nardolillo, funeral director, whose family funeral homes in Narragansett and Cranston.
He also said that they must deal with a 10-person maximum for wakes and visitations.
“With the winter months fast approaching, we’re prohibited from forming lines inside the building, even with social distancing. This poses an issue for people coming to pay their respects, especially the elderly,” he said.
“We petitioned the Department of Health to reconsider this, as they allow for it in all grocery stores, retail stores, etc. But we were denied,” Nardolillo added.
Chris Quinn, funeral director at Fagan-Quinn Funeral Home in North Kingstown, offered a similar assessment.
“We are mostly hit with the limitations from 15 to 10 as it applies to wakes and cemetery services and burial services,” he said.
Many religious leaders report they have continued their online services, which began last spring when the virus hit the state hard and lockdowns were ordered pertaining to the gathering of people together.
However, the Catholic Church in Rhode Island has been very vocal about allowing its members to gather again – though in limited numbers – in its churches.
In Narragansett at St. Thomas More R.C. Chruch, the Rev. Marcel Tallion said, the additional recent restrictions do not pose problems because his services are always under the capacity allowed.
“We average about 400 in person on the weekend at our six Masses. Catholic churches have (had) no outbreaks traced to them and we practice safe distancing, uniform worship liturgy and all is safe and well,” he said.
Tallion added, “Our people are hungry for the Eucharist in person. We need to remember that. If people can go to Stop and Shop, Catholic Mass is a much safer and more orderly gathering.”
The state, which has ordered earlier closing times for all bars and restaurants – 10 p.m. on weeknights, and 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, recently said it would provide some financial assistance to those affected.
It has launched a grant program with awards ranging between $2,000 to $10,000 for qualifying businesses. Applications can made at tax.ri.gov/RICares for the funds.
“We know that the more time we spend somewhere, the more likely we are to get the virus,” Raimondo said when announcing the grants associated with her also curbing their hours of operation.
“And we also know that the current increase in cases is being driven by informal, social settings where our guards are down and our masks are off, and that’s often happening at night,” she added.
“It’s our hope that taking this step now will allow us to avoid a full shutdown of these businesses down the road,” she said.
In addition, the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce has been awarded a “Business Technical Assistance” grant from Rhode Island Department of Commerce to support small businesses.
The grant will fund consulting services, other grant application assistance, and special programming to assist small businesses collaborate on solutions to problems the pandemic has raised.
Through Envision Technology Advisors, the chamber is offering complimentary virtual one-hour virtual consultancy sessions for small businesses (under 50 employees) and weekly roundtable discussions for the next several weeks.
The individual IT sessions include general technology, web presence, technology security, collaboration tools consulting, data analysis and file Sharing, several key components in running business technology.
“The pandemic has been a catalyst driving businesses to transform how they communicate, operate, and deliver services and products to their customers. That change can be challenging, but it is absolutely attainable,” said Todd Knapp of Envision Technology Advisors.
The Coming Months
Anitra L. Galmore, chief nursing and operations officer at South County Hospital said, “We will be challenged to sustain an increasing level of volume without a collaborative approach to managing the pandemic.”
She also said, “Our staff’s resilience will be challenged and that is difficult to bear when we know that the increase of COVID cases is largely preventable if people would follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and the Rhode Island Department of Health.”
However, many lessons were learned during the spring surge to help the hospital maintain a state of readiness and develop action plans that will continue through this next surge, she also said.
“Our surge planning includes modifications that will help us manage an increase in Emergency Department volume; increase inpatient bed capacity; and cross train staff so they can flex into a different role if needed,” Galmore said.
She noted that throughout the hospital daily reports come from its departments to identify any “stress points” within the organization that need to be addressed.
Galmore also pointed to the state needing to keep up a supply of testing equipment and PPE, but did not elaborate on whether a problem exists now.
“This coordination will allow us to discharge patients who no longer require hospital level-care to behavioral health and rehabilitation facilities,” she said.
South Kingstown’s Town Manager Zarnetske accented the need for innovative solutions to help people as well as focus on direct pandemic problems that are unavoidable.
“The question is whether we are going to survive the winter and get to the late spring when things look a lot better because of the expected widespread availability of a vaccine,” he said.
In the spring people go outdoors more often and that will also help prevent the virus that spreads more easily indoors during winter months, he said.
Right now, Zarnetske said, planning mostly focuses on two-week increments because of the incubation time for virus to appear and that determines any worsening conditions.
Southern Rhode Island Chamber’s Viele said that he remains concerned about over-reach by state government officials in curbing businesses with restrictions.
“I want the governor to be fair in how she reacts to the increase in cases. If she can identify the source, then I don’t disagree that she needs to react,” he said.
He said that he remains concerned that state policy unfairly penalizes businesses that are “going by the rules and doing things right, yet they (state officials) bring in these restrictions that hurt those going by the book.”
Raimondo, though, has indicated that she sees the need to address the issue broadly.
“This is the beginning of what could be a devasting second wave in our state,” she has said in public statements, “and we need to face the fact that this will be the consequence if we don’t change our behavior.”