Governor Gina Raimondo has released her plan for reopening Rhode Island, and it isn’t good enough.
On the good side is that at least given some solid measures to judge by. She’s hanging on to useless and condescending “key indicators” like “are we prepared to reimpose measures, or reclose certain sectors of the economy, if it becomes necessary?”
However, the public now has some numeric way to push back. Each phase will (apparently) last for a minimum of two weeks, during which either the number of COVID-19 drops or hospitalizations are “stable or declining.” A few other measures have to do with the number of intensive care units (ICUs) available and continued testing.
That said, the phases are too minimal. Phase 1 only increases the allowable size of gatherings to 10 people, from 5. Stores will still be limited to “pickup of pre-orders,” with restaurants still limited to “pickup, delivery, and drive-through.” Rhode Islanders can access “limited childcare options,” and some hair stylists can open in a pilot program. On the recreation side, only “some parks” will open.
Phase 2 only increases gathering size to 15. “More” (so apparently not all) “restaurants, retail and close-contact businesses like hair and nail salons may open. The “more” applies also to parks and beaches.
Phase 3, starting on June 6 at the earliest, most notably sees schools opening. Gatherings can go up to 50 people, and economic activities can get away with “some of the tightest restrictions” (whatever that means). Keep in mind that the governor already announced that schools will continue “distance learning” through the end of the year, squashing graduations and other ceremonies, saying it’s “a bummer.” The inclusion of school reopening in her reopening plan indicates either that she is acknowledging that was premature or she doesn’t expect the phases to actually last only two weeks.
Raimondo has provided no timeline for an actual reopening, so once Rhode Island hits Phase 3, we should expect a slow dribble of new directives allowing more activity… at her sole discretion. From her ongoing commentary, we should expect that phase 3 to last for about a year and intricate, top-down orders from the government for specific businesses, or at least types of businesses. The hesitance about colleges in September emphasizes the point.
This plan does not relinquish the governor’s unilateral authority quickly enough. Emergency powers exist for emergencies, not rolling threats. They were written with the idea of shutting down limited areas that are especially dangerous, not reordering society to deal with a disease that many people never know they have and that kills only a small percentage. That sentence contains within it a key point: COVID-19 is an emergency for small number of Rhode Islanders, but that doesn’t mean shutting down the economy any more than a radioactive accident in some corner of the state would mean issuing a stay-at-home order for the entire state.
We are where we are, however, and Rhode Islanders won’t necessarily want to spring into economic action on May 9th. Even so, the governor shouldn’t be allowed to set her own timeframe for relinquishing her enhanced powers and judge for herself when the thresholds are met. After all, we’re in this situation because she was using secret projection models that have proven far too frightening. If we’re talking months, the General Assembly must meet and pass a law.
More importantly, civic authorities like religious leaders must start insisting that they will set their own standards. The governor has no authority to say that 100 people can safely navigate Walmart but 50 cannot safely navigate a Catholic Mass. The dogged avoidance of a showdown on the part of civic leaders shirks their responsibility and suggests that they actually don’t have authority that is separate from government. They do.