Raimondo restricts summer activities: what does this look like for the island?

Thu, 04/30/2020 - 6:00pm
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Gov. Gina Raimondo, at her regularly scheduled daily briefing on Wednesday, April 29, stated that large gatherings and events for this coming summer, such as the Newport Folk Festival and Fourth of July parades, were likely not going to happen. It was a decision made, she said, “with a knot in my stomach.”

She noted that this decision will impact those coastal towns that rely on the tourism industry, but did not specifically mention Block Island. While the island does not rely on single events of any real size to bring visitors here, during the summer the island can see as many as 20,000 people present on a bright, sunny day.

Raimondo said there may be a point when groups of up to 50 people can meet, according to her preliminary phased opening plan. The Block Island Town Council also met on Wednesday where there was the beginning of a discussion on how to safely reopen the island, but no decisions were made.

Dr. Mark Clark, and his successor, Dr. Tom Warcup, who both participated in the Town Council’s online meeting on Wednesday, stated there is a plan in place for the medical center to deal with an outbreak of the coronavirus on the island, but they both added that any reopening of the island comes with increased risk.

That said, Block Island’s Tourism leaders spoke to The Block Island Times on the impact the governor’s decision will have on the island.

“The Sullivan House, Spring House, Narragansett Inn — there are so many people impacted by this. It’s going to be a very different summer. We are trying to get people to think about their business, and rethink every step: what are they going to be doing, and how to recreate themselves,” said Block Island Chamber of Commerce Director Cindy Lasser. She mentioned the Chamber “had a huge event planned [the Summer Symphony at Sullivan], and it’s not happening now.”

“We’re not going to have the huge numbers we have… We are all taking a huge hit in the state. It’s just so uncharted here. We also have a different hurdle — when places can reopen on the mainland, they can go back in. But our businesses are so behind because we haven’t been able to go in and prep. It’s a more difficult situation here on the island,” she added.

Tourism Director Jessica Willi also shared her thoughts after hearing Raimondo’s recent announcement.

“To be clear, she said she’s not cancelling them, but it’s up to the organizers to cancel the events. She’s allowing groups of up to 50 people at a time… I believe that will mean no Fourth of July parade [on the island]. Our biggest event is the Fourth of July Parade, which brings the most people out on the island. Hopefully, the moving of weddings to the fall or next spring will happen as opposed to cancellations, but it’s up to each individual,” said Willi.

Willi noted that the majority of businesses on the island cater to smaller groups of people.

“Other than that, we don’t have a ton of huge events that drives business to Block Island. The reality is, the majority of people coming to Block Island this summer, when and if it happens from other states, are going to be people who are coming for the day, those people who have rented houses, and are staying in hotels.”

Willi said the trimmed-back version of the summer was bound to happen.

“We all knew it was coming — this constant waiting game, but I think the governor was receiving a lot of pressure. I’m hopeful that those businesses that do rely on large events are able to hold on through the season, and make it through. We are going to do everything we can,” said Willi.

Interstate’s Director of Security Bill McCombe spoke on how the 50 person rule would impact the ferry.

“Basically, the fact is, we are not a gathering, we are a mode of transportation. We are carrying less than four percent of what our capacity is. We have a strategic plan, which must be fluid and subject to drastic changes. Currently, with our ridership, social distancing is not an issue. We’re a lifeline service, and we need to provide the needs to the residents. Those needs are addressing the best safety practices for transportation of passengers. There are challenges [with transportation], but with education and cooperation, we can move forward,” said McCombe.

At the Town Council’s April 29 online meeting, McCombe also noted the average number of riders on the ferry “has been under 15 passengers in the last six weeks. Most people we had on our boat, including drivers, were 38. Currently, social distancing is not an issue, however that doesn’t mean we aren’t looking at 30 or 60 days out.”

‘Keeping the message strong’

Dr. Clark, who will be leaving his current post as Medical Director of the Block Island Health Services this month, has been consistent in his message of having the island “keep our guard up” about keeping COVID-19 at bay.

“Everyone already knows this, that there is going to be increased risk to the island, but we also can’t keep the island closed forever. We are anticipating all of the scenarios and the speed in which we act, and there is no perfect way for us to determine. On our call today, one of the things we were discussing is the importance in keeping the message strong, and that all of the practices over the last month continue forward. We are going to do our best to be prepared, and we have protocols in place,” said Clark.

“I trust that these businesses are going to do their best — their employees, themselves, and if they don’t [follow rules], they are going to have to shut down. I think we need to believe in them. We have to trust that they will,” said Lasser.