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PROVIDENCE — As the number of coronavirus cases detected in Rhode Island climbed by eight to 132, Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday announced new restrictions on the number of customers allowed inside grocery stores and other large retail businesses in yet another measure to restrict the spread of the nationwide outbreak.
The rules, which were released by the Department of Business Regulation following the governor’s daily State House briefing Wednesday afternoon, are aimed at reducing the number of customers at any one time inside the establishments that still remain open, and ensuring that people are able to maintain a safe distance from one another while they’re shopping. Retailers will be required to count the number of people they let inside and enforce limits if necessary. The regulations will take effect Thursday at 5 p.m.
The governor acknowledged that the restrictions may lead to lines outside stores — a concern that she said was raised by retailers — but she assured the public that supply chains are functioning better than in the earlier days of the pandemic. Consumers shouldn’t misinterpret the presence of crowds waiting to get in to do their shopping as a sign of shortages of goods.
“Nobody should be hoarding,” she said. “Nobody should be worried about that. You don’t need to be stocking up for a month.”
Raimondo said the new rules were implemented in response to “way too many reports” of big-box retailers allowing large numbers of people inside who have been shopping in close proximity.
Not only will stores now have to limit customer numbers to 20 percent of fire capacity and mark out six-foot spacing lines in high-traffic areas, they must also eliminate self-serve foods and food sampling. They must follow cleaning guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and set aside exclusive hours for seniors and other high-risk people when store capacity will be further restricted to 10 percent of fire capacity.
Additionally, stores larger than 25,000 square feet are encouraged to make it easier to place orders online so customers only have to stop by to pick up their purchases.
Raimondo said that she had decided to allow large retail operations to remain open “to maintain a semblance of an economy” with as many people able to work as possible, but she didn’t rule out further action if stores don’t follow the new regulations. The state police will be doing spot-checks of retailers, she warned.
“If we find that you’re not complying, then I’m going to have to do something more extreme,” the governor said.
The eight new coronavirus cases — five men and three women ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s — is the lowest daily increase in Rhode Island in several days. Fifteen patients are being treated in hospitals and the majority are in stable condition. There have been no deaths so far in the state.
Raimondo said she was encouraged that the state isn’t seeing the dramatic spikes that are occurring elsewhere in the nation, such as in New York City or Seattle, and she attributed the more moderate numbers to “swift, aggressive action.”
“The good news is we clamped down quickly and thoughtfully,” she said.
But she was also measured in her assessment of the situation so far.
“It’s premature really for me to say exactly where we are on the curve,” she said. “We only have a hundred and some cases, so our modeling is imperfect at best at this stage. There will be more cases. There may be days where we may have a lot more cases than today.”
She said she expects to extend previously-ordered social distancing actions. That includes her order to close in-person dining at restaurants and bars, which is set to expire on Monday.
The governor was more unbridled in her enthusiasm for the $2-trillion economic stimulus package that was set to pass Congress after Senate Democrats and Republicans struck a deal early Wednesday morning. The bill would include $1.25 billion for Rhode Island.
She said she expects to know more on Thursday about the specifics of Rhode Island’s share of the money and what it could be used for, but she outlined in broad strokes where it would be going. There would be funding for loans to small businesses that would be forgiven if they retain all their workers. There would be support for hospitals and cash payments to Rhode Islanders.
And some of the money would be used to expand unemployment benefits to independent contractors, small business owners, hairdressers and others who don’t qualify under the current system. The new benefit payments would be made through the Department of Labor and Training.
The additional money comes as the number of Rhode Islanders who have filed COVID-19-related unemployment insurance claims surpassed 50,000. The latest figures released on Wednesday by the state show that 50,381 claims were filed between March 9 and March 24. Another 5,659 people filed for virus-related temporary disability insurance.
In addition to the new restrictions on retailers, the state is also asking medical offices to make changes to battle the virus.
State Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said that doctors are being asked to postpone some elected surgeries that were scheduled in advance in an effort to reduce the number of people coming into medical facilities and to conserve face masks and other personal protective equipment that have been in short supply during the outbreak.
She specified that the state is not imposing a blanket prohibition on these surgeries, which may include heart or cancer surgeries, but is only requesting that procedures that are not urgent be put off to a later date.
Medical facilities must submit plans to maintain a 14-day supply of protective equipment and details on how they will make decisions on going forward with previously-scheduled procedures that are considered critical.
“So we have agreement that there are no non-critical elective procedures that are occurring now in Rhode Island,” she said. “This will ensure that people get the care they need while helping us keep patients at home, helping make sure that we are conserving personal protective equipment, and helping to ensure that hospitals have the capacity to treat more critically ill patients.”
On Twitter: @KuffnerAlex
Distribution of Rhode Island COVID-19 patients by city/town Town or cityNumber of cases– – – Town or cityNumber of casesBarringtonfewer than 5New Shoreham 0Bristolfewer than 5Newport fewer than 5Burrillvillefewer than 5North Kingstown fewer than 5Central Fallsfewer than 5North Providencefewer than 5Charlestown0North Smithfield fewer than 5Coventryfewer than 5Pawtucket5Cranston11Portsmouth fewer than 5Cumberland fewer than 5Providence42East Greenwich 0Richmond0East Providence 8Scituatefewer than 5Exeter 0Smithfield fewer than 5Fosterfewer than 5South Kingstown7Glocester 0Tiverton0Hopkinton0Warren fewer than 5Jamestownfewer than 5Warwick7Johnston fewer than 5West Greenwich0Lincoln fewer than 5West Warwick0Little Compton 0Westerly fewer than 5Middletown 5Woonsocketfewer than 5Narragansettfewer than 5
City and town numbers between 1 and 4 are listed as “fewer than five” for patient privacy reasons.
Distribution of Rhode Island COVID-19 patients by ageAge groupNumber of cases0-19620-292230-392440-492450-592860-691570-791180-89090 and older2