Mulling a message for uncertain times

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 7:00pm
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With Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo declaring a State of Emergency, coupled with Interstate Navigation issuing a statement that, while there is no projected change to the ferry schedule, said the company is maintaining a rigorous disinfecting regimen to minimize exposure to their passengers, Block Island Chamber of Commerce Director Cindy Lasser asked members of the Tourism Council if the groups should issue an official statement on how the virus may impact the upcoming summer season.

“Is there going to be a statement?” Lasser asked the Tourism Board members at their Tuesday, March 10 meeting, but she added that she was also unsure if a statement needed to be made at this time. The conversation took place before it was known that the Block Island Lions Club had cancelled its annual St. Patrick’s Day Dinner, which was scheduled for Saturday, March 14. It was also before the announcement from Block Island Power Co. had issued a statement that it was closing its office for any in-person transactions. The statement from BIPCo President Jeffery Wright stated: “Due to the nature of our business transactions and the critical nature of the services we provide, we are taking several precautions in response to the spread of COVID 19. We will be closing the office today to any “in person“ transactions. Most all of our transactions can be done remotely so there should be no impact to our members but in the event that you need something that can’t be done remotely just call Tracy and at 466-5851 to coordinate. This is strictly proactive and not in response to anything in particular. If we can limit our exposure to each other I think we should so thank you for your understanding! Our field crews will be taking steps to protect themselves as well.”

The Tourism Board members comprise business owners and hotel owners and managers. They stated they had either received only a few calls or none about the impact the virus might have on their guests’ travel plans to the island. But they noted that might change if the virus continues to spread as it gets closer to summer. There was also some discussion about whether to hold a forum with the students from other countries who come to the island for summer employment. Those students come from all over the world, and in recent days global travel has been severely restricted.

Chair Steve Filippi, who owns Ballard’s Inn, said he would put the matter on the agenda for the Board’s March 24 meeting. Filippi also said he had spoken to Interstate’s Director of Security, Bill McCombe, and said the ferry company “was definitely on it” in terms of addressing concerns.

With the 2020 summer season still two months away, Board member Logan Mott Chase said, “I’m not a medical professional but I don’t feel comfortable telling people, ‘Hey, you’re going to be 100 percent safe.’” Tourism Director Jessica Willi said she knew of one convention that was cancelled in Providence due to the fact that more than half of the attendees were to come from overseas. Willi did not feel a prepared statement was needed at this time. She suggested that hotel, inn and bread and breakfast owners may want to put up statements on their own websites to detail what precautions they may be taking.

Medical Center Director Mark Clark, in a statement to The Block Island Times, said on Wednesday, March 11, “There is no suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 on Block Island at this time. We continue to monitor the situation and will keep the community informed should any suspected or confirmed case occur.”

First Warden Ken Lacoste addressed the coronavirus situation, and precautions the island community should consider. The Town Council met on Wednesday, March 11 to review and act on various budgets.

“If you have a fever or cough, you shouldn’t be here. Nothing personal, but that is what everyone is saying. Use common sense and common courtesy during these times. Various colleges and towns are taking precautions. If you do think you are coming down with something, call the Medical Center on how to deal with it. That is the rule we are following,” said Lacoste.

“Call, don’t just walk in [to the Medical Center],” added Councilor Martha Ball. The Block Island Medical Center’s phone number is (401) 466-2974.

To learn more on the steps to prevent illness and what to do if you feel sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have resources available online. In other news, Town Manager Jim Kern wrote to the board suggesting that the cost of adding staff members to the Visitor Center — new staff members that are being called “tourism ambassadors” and who would not be employees of the Chamber — should be shared between the Tourism Council and the town of New Shoreham to the total cost of $30,000.

The issue has been that the Chamber is a membership-driven organization and businesses that pay dues should be given a higher priority than businesses who are not members. But Chamber employees serve as a kind of clearing house for all queries about the island, regardless of whether the question is about a Chamber member or not. The solution suggested has been to hire two non-Chamber employees who would work for the benefit of the entire town.

The idea was coolly received by at least one member of the Tourism Board. “I give my feelings as a member of the Chamber. As I understand it, the Chamber wants this funding to pay for the staff at the Visitor Center,” said member John Cullen.

He was addressing his comments to Lasser, who was in the audience.

But Lasser said, “That’s Mr. Kern’s letter, not mine.”

“What he’s wanting us to do is have us pay half and the town pay half and the Chamber not pay anything,” said Cullen. “Shouldn’t the Chamber pay for this?” Cullen also argued that Chamber members benefit by having the Chamber staff at the Visitor Center. “The fundamental thing is, I’m a member and you run the Visitor Center. The Chamber should pitch in,” said Cullen.

Board member Dave Houseman said the state legislature has been chipping away at the monies sent to the regional tourism boards, which has had an impact on their budget. He also said this was the second year in a row the Tourism Board has contributed to the Chamber. Last year, the Tourism Board voted to allocate $10,000 to the Chamber to help ease their finances.

“The letter does say this is a one-year solution, but I did say to the Town Manager that we had this exact same conversation last year. We’re in the exact same spot.”

It was decided to invite Kern to the next scheduled meeting, which is Tuesday, March 24 at 9 a.m. at Town Hall.