Town rolls up welcome mat

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 5:15pm
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In a dramatic reversal of Block Island’s usual policy of welcoming everyone from everywhere, the Town Council this past week approved an emergency ordinance that essentially shuts down the island for all non-essential activities, cancels reservations at hotels, inns and online rentals, and recommends that all residents shelter in place for 14 days. The order imposes fines and penalties for those who violate the provisions of the ordinance.

The ordinance went into effect at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24 and will be in full force until April 15, unless extended by the council as the COVID-19 medical crisis evolves.

The council, acting on the advice of Dr. Mark Clark, Director of the Block Island Medical Center, made the move to stem the flow of interstate travel to the island in order to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay as effectively as possible.

The remarkable document was initially passed on March 17, but with new COVID-19 developments on a daily if not hourly basis, the council revisited the document on Sunday, March 23 and began adding to and fine-tuning its already existing elements. Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla was tasked with keeping track and writing and rewriting the document. The main directive of the document, said Merolla, who attended the meetings by speakerphone, was “to provide increased protection of the town.” The issues before the council varied in degree of severity and scope. While they debated whether to cancel all building permits, or to shutter town hall, the councilors also debated whether or not to allow restaurants to provide curbside take-out or to allow take-out for beer and wine. (They did. When asked if his department would have any problem with that, Police Chief Vin Carlone said he did not.)

What the council acknowledged it could not do in the ordinance, citing legal barriers and despite considerable public outcry, was restrict or halt travel to the island during the COVID-19 crisis.

After the end of the debate on Monday, March 23, the councilors implored those who are already here and who plan to come to the island to adhere to the guidelines and specifications of the ordinance it passed that evening. Not doing so, the councilors stated repeatedly, could turn the situation on Block Island “into something horrific,” according to Councilor Martha Ball.

“Don’t break the seal,” said Ball. “Please respect this place. Our resources are limited.”

The members of the council, and Dr. Clark, have repeatedly emphasized the fact that Block Island has limited medical resources and a limited food supply. The Medical Center has three exam rooms and one trauma center. Anyone diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus can not be treated here, Dr. Clark has said, but will be taken off island. The Block Island Town Council urged those who are thinking about coming to the island in the immediate or near future to remember that Block Island “is not a safe haven.” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said on Tuesday that while she has not yet issued a shelter in place order for the state, she supports any moves that leaders in local coastal towns do that could keep interstate travelers who may be moving into their second homes away from their towns. She explicitly referenced travelers from New York City, which she said is “obviously a hot spot” for the COVID-19 virus.

The newly revised emergency ordinance also mandates that reservations made through airbnb, VRBO and other online rental platforms will be cancelled. According to the ordinance, “All short term lodging owners and operators, including their agents and employees, shall cease taking new reservations pertaining to occupancy dates which fall within the effective period of this emergency ordinance.” 

The most detailed conversation regarding the ordinance centered on provision number nine, which pertains to visitors, the status of non-essential workers, and defining what “shelter-in-place” means for all of those who are currently on the island.

“The council is making a concerted effort to protect the health and safety of Block Island, but we can not do it alone,” said First Warden Ken Lacoste.

The council made its first stab at revising the ordinance at a marathon meeting on Sunday, March 22, during which they went over the document in sometimes agonizing detail. Councilor Chris Willi’s primary concern, at the outset, was addressing bookings that had been made through online rental platforms, such as airbnb. More than 60 rental opportunities had been identified, and Willi’s reasoning was that these bookings should be closed off because hotels, inns, and B&B bookings had also been cancelled. If people have already rented through an online platform and already arrived, Willi said, “They have to go home.”

Second Warden André Boudreau said that local real estate agents were receiving cancellations, but were also “being very proactive in stopping people from coming here.”

There was also some discussion about monitoring the flow of traffic in and out of such places as the Red Bird package store, the Block Island Grocery and the Island Hardware store. (The hardware store is also doing curbside pickup.)The council deemed Island Bound bookstore an “essential service” for island residents. “I’m glad she’s open,” said Boudreau, referencing bookstore owner Susan Bush.

The ordinance also prohibits the rental of mopeds, rental cars, and bikes, and has put all taxi and chauffeur licenses on hold. “We’re essentially shutting down everything,” said Willi.

Bill McCombe, the town’s co-director of Emergency Management, said “each business needs to make adjustments for the services they provide. The town should be supplying support, support for ideas as opposed to putting regulations on things as opposed to enacting ordinances we can’t enforce.”

As for ferry travel, McCombe said that the ferries were running at about five percent capacity, and flyers had been handed out to travelers so they would be aware of the social distancing rules. McCombe said the ferry company was urging people to stay in their cars for the duration of the 55-minute trip if they have brought a car onto the boat.

“The passengers have been very good,” said McCombe. “They understand the level of severity.”

McCombe addressed what had been something of a running theme throughout the days-long discussion, which was the perceived influx of families returning to the second homes on the island, and the divide that may have been building between the seasonal residents and the year-round residents.

“These are our neighbors, our family, our friends. We need to be careful not to have a split in our community between the summer and year-round people. We need to step back and co-exist and we’ll get through this together.”

The provisions in the ordinance are:

NOW, THEREFORE, the Town Council of the Town of New Shoreham does hereby adopt the following emergency ordinance for purposes of protecting the public health, safety and/or general welfare of the Town which are imminently imperiled by COVID-19:

1. A state of emergency is hereby immediately declared in the Town of New Shoreham due to the risks to the public health and safety posed by COVID-19. The original emergency ordinance was effective as of 12:01 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, the amendments to the emergency ordinance are effective as of 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, and this entire ordinance, as amended, shall continue in full force and effect until midnight on April 15, 2020. The effective period may be amended as circumstances warrant.

2. All Town offices and facilities except for public safety offices shall close and all non-essential Town employees shall be put on paid administrative leave until further notice; provided, however, that the administrative leave status of Town employees may be amended by the Town Manager and First Warden. The determination as to which employees are essential shall be at the discretion of the Town Manager and the Town Manager may call back any employee in the event of an urgent matter requiring immediate attention.

3. All restaurants, bars and other establishments that offer food and/or beverages to the public shall not permit on-premises consumption of food or beverages, and may offer only take-out or delivery service as to food, wine and beer to accompany take-out food orders as specified below, and non-alcoholic beverages in accordance with the social distancing protocols of the Rhode Island Department of Health. A Class B licensee is permitted to sell up to 2 bottles of wine and 144 ounces of beer in original, factory sealed containers, with take-out food orders, provided such sales shall be made in accordance with Section 1.4.10 of the Department Business Regulations, 230-RICR-30-10-1.

4. All gatherings of people (other than family members) in excess of ten (10) or more on Block Island are prohibited. Gatherings shall include, without limitation, community, civic, public, leisure or faith-based events, sporting events, concerts, conventions, fundraisers, parades, fairs, festivals and any other similar activity on the island which brings together more than ten (10) people.

5. All non-essential Town meetings are cancelled or postponed, including, without limitation, Town Council meetings, Town financial meetings and all meetings of any Town department, agency, quasi-municipal agency, board and commission.

6. All Town departments, agencies, quasi-municipal agencies, boards and commissions are instructed to fully cooperate with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and with the New Shoreham Emergency Management Agency in all matters regarding this ordinance.

7. All of the following licenses and permits are suspended during the effective period of this emergency ordinance: entertainment licenses; liquor licenses except for Class A licenses and except for the modifications to the Class B licenses as set forth in paragraph 3 of this emergency ordinance; special event permits; outdoor entertainment licenses; taxi and motor vehicles for hire licenses; and bicycle, motorized bicycle, motorized tricycle and motor scooter licenses. In addition, no vehicles of any kind may be rented on Block Island.

8. Travel to Block Island is discouraged for any non-resident. Full-time residents are encouraged to restrict travel off island for essential purposes only such as medical care, care of a family member, and obtaining food and other provisions.

9. Visitors who are not involved in Essential Activities (as that term is hereinafter defined) shall leave the island and follow CDC and Rhode Island Department of Health guidelines.

Anyone arriving on Block Island must immediately Self-Quarantine (as that term is hereinafter defined) for two weeks, and thereafter must Shelter in Place (as that term is hereinafter defined) and follow CDC and Rhode Island Department of Health guidelines.

All residents, full-time or seasonal, must Shelter in Place and follow CDC and Rhode Island Department of Health guidelines.

Only transient workers may commute to Block Island who are engaged in Essential Activities.

All persons on Block Island are encouraged to conduct Essential Activities by themselves, in order that minimal contact/exposure may be achieved.

Only skeleton crews will be permitted to enter construction sites for the remainder of the effective period of this emergency ordinance and such entry shall be limited to what is necessary to ensure safety and security.                 

The term "Self-Quarantine" means remain at your residence except for medical care or emergencies, have food and other necessities delivered, and monitor yourself for symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.

The term "Shelter in Place" means remaining at your residence except for Essential Activities; however, people may leave their homes for outside activities such as walks and exercise, but social distancing must be maintained and the CDC and Rhode Island Department of Health guidelines must be followed.

The term "Essential Activities" includes activities relating to the following: public safety; public works; medical care; public utilities such as water, sewer and electric; sale and purchase of gasoline, sale and purchase of propane and heating oil; delivery of medicines; transfer station; sale and purchase of liquor as provided in this emergency ordinance; sale and purchase of hardware and lumber; post office; package delivery; sale and purchase of groceries; sale and purchase of take-out food; banking; education as it directly relates to development of curriculum and its distribution; and emergency vehicle repairs.           

10. Any person who may have come in close contact with a person who has COVID-19 must immediately self-quarantine for fourteen days before coming to Block Island.

11. Any person who is under self-quarantine direction who wants to go to the Block Island Medical Center must first contact the medical center for instructions as to how to proceed. This directive does not apply to persons requiring emergency medical care or assistance.

12. All persons on Block Island shall fully comply with all federal, state and local emergency directives and orders as shall be from time to time amended.

13. All short-term lodging owners and operators, including their agents and employees, shall cease taking new reservations pertaining to occupancy dates which fall within the effective period of this emergency ordinance. For purposes of this emergency ordinance, "short-term lodging" shall include but is not limited to, lodging of thirty (30) days or fewer in hotels, inns, motels, online rental platforms including but not limited to air bnb's and vrbo's, lodges, bed and breakfasts, houses, condominiums, time-shares, cottages and retreats. All short-term lodging reservations, contracts, and/or agreements pertaining to reservations involving occupancy which is occurring or which is to occur during the effective period of this emergency ordinance are cancelled; provided, however, that this cancellation provision shall not apply to housing for persons engaged in Essential Activities.

14. A violation of any provision of this emergency ordinance is punishable by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars ($500) or imprisonment not exceeding thirty (30) days. Each day any violation of this emergency ordinance shall continue shall constitute a separate offense.

15. The New Shoreham Police Department is instructed to enforce the provisions of this emergency ordinance.