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Rhode Island officials tell stores to limit shoppers and implement other restrictions

Stores must keep customers 6 feet apart, stop handing out samples, and offer special hours for older shoppers

Shoppers waited in line last week to enter a Stop & Shop supermarket in North Providence during special early-morning hours designated for seniors. Now all stores in Rhode Island will have to offer the service.
Shoppers waited in line last week to enter a Stop & Shop supermarket in North Providence during special early-morning hours designated for seniors. Now all stores in Rhode Island will have to offer the service.David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — In another attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, state officials will limit the number of shoppers that can be inside grocery and big-box retail stores at any one time, starting at 5 p.m. Thursday.

How many customers? No more than 20 percent of the capacity allowed inside under state fire marshal limits, according to new rules released Wednesday night by the state Department of Business Regulations.

Just like nightclubs, stores will be required to have staff counting the number of customers entering and leaving to make sure stores don’t exceed their limits.

Inside, employees must monitor customers to make sure they stay at least 6 feet apart under the “social distancing” guidelines, and mark off 6-foot intervals in checkout lines and high-traffic areas.


Also, stores can no longer offer self-serve food or product samples. They must offer exclusive hours for seniors and others considered at high-risk for COVID-19, and those special shopping times will be restricted to 10 percent of fire capacity. Larger grocery stores and retailers with more than 25,000 square feet are encouraged to offer pickup and/or delivery options.

Governor Gina M. Raimondo said officials will do spot checks to make sure stores are complying.

The new rules came on the same day that Raimondo announced that eight more Rhode Islanders had tested positive for the coronavirus in the previous 24 hours, the lowest increase in the state in several days.

A total of 132 Rhode Islanders have now tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new virus, and 15 are currently hospitalized, said Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.

For the first time, the state Department of Health released a list Wednesday of where the coronavirus cases were reported. Health officials cautioned that the data shouldn’t be used to draw any conclusions about relative risk in different cities and towns because borders do not matter to a virus.


Most of the COVID-19 patients live in Providence and surrounding municipalities.

Providence has 42 people who have tested positive for COVID-19, followed by Cranston with 11 residents, East Providence with eight residents, and Warwick and South Kingstown each with seven cases. Middletown and Pawtucket each have five residents who’ve tested positive.

The cities and towns with fewer than five cases are Barrington, Bristol, Burrillville, Central Falls, Coventry, Cumberland, Foster, Jamestown, Johnston, Lincoln, Narragansett, Newport, North Kingstown, North Providence, North Smithfield, Portsmouth, Scituate, Smithfield, Warren, Westerly, and Woonsocket.

Eleven towns have no reported cases, as of Wednesday: Charlestown, East Greenwich, Exeter, Glocester, Hopkinton, Little Compton, New Shoreham, Richmond, Tiverton, West Greenwich, and West Warwick.

The coronavirus cases are evenly split between males and females, and range in age from six children under 19 to two people in their 90s. Those in their 50s make up the largest number, with 28 positive cases. There was an equal number of people in their 30s and 40s who tested positive, with 24 cases in each age group. There are 22 people in their 20s who tested positive for COVID-19, and 11 people in their 70s.

Despite the continued increase in the number of cases, Wednesday was a good day, Raimondo said at her daily press briefing, because Congress and the Trump administration struck a deal on a $2 trillion coronavirus aid package.

Raimondo praised Rhode Island’s federal delegation, singling out US Senator Jack Reed “for your heroism.” Rhode Island is slated to receive $1.25 billion as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package.


“This is a good day in our collective fight against the coronavirus,” Raimondo said.

She said this will support local businesses, offer small business loans that are forgivable for companies that don’t fire workers, support hospitals financially, and provide expanded unemployment benefits for specific groups of people, including independent contractors, small business owners, hairdressers, and others who usually are not allowed to apply for benefits.

Also, Raimondo is asking legislative leaders to borrow $300 million from the “United States government or any other private source” in response to the pandemic crippling the state’s economy.

Raimondo requested that the Disaster Emergency Funding Board meet Thursday morning to consider the short-term borrowing plan to help the state manage a cash-flow problem that stems largely from a decision to delay the tax filing deadline until July 15.

She also announced that Rhode Island is partnering with Care.com to match people in need of child care and elder care help. For the next 90 days, the service is free for Rhode Islanders to search for care. Raimondo also encouraged residents to volunteer their services by signing up on the site.

No non-critical elective medical procedures are occurring in Rhode Island, to make sure hospitals have medical equipment and facilities to treat COVID-19 cases. “We are making sure we are ready as Rhode Islanders together,” Alexander-Scott said.


With New York state appearing to be the epicenter of coronavirus, Raimondo said she expects New Yorkers to quarantine themselves when they come to Rhode Island. Already, all Rhode Islanders returning on flights, whether domestic or international, are ordered to self-quarantine for two weeks and provide their contact information to the state Department of Health.

However, the focus is turning to the states of New York and New Jersey and the bordering states of Massachusetts and Connecticut, where infections and deaths are climbing fast.

This week, officials in Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth ordered all out-of-state travelers and seasonal residents, especially from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, to self-quarantine for two weeks. Raimondo said she expects to make more announcements on this soon.

According to data from Wednesday, there have been at least 1,650 Rhode Islanders who have been tested for the virus. However, that number doesn’t include those who have pending tests or tested negative at private and hospital labs, because those facilities don’t usually report negative results to the state, said health department spokesman Joseph Wendelken.

Although the governor touted Rhode Island’s relatively low numbers of people testing positive for COVID-19, it’s been difficult to get a handle on the actual extent of the coronavirus disease in the state. There aren’t enough tests for all who have symptoms, so the state Health Department is prioritizing who gets tested, focusing mainly on health care workers, people who are hospitalized, and those in nursing homes.


That mostly means that other people with symptoms are not being tested. Some have told The Boston Globe about their inability to get tested, even though doctors have told them their symptoms sound like they have COVID-19.

Without expanding testing, is there an estimate of how many positive cases could be in Rhode Island?

“It’s an excellent question,” Alexander-Scott said. “The numbers for estimates range in saying that, if you see one positive case, there could be multifold more aligned with that one positive case."

She didn’t offer specifics about what that “multifold more” would look like, exactly, and the remote press conference did not allow for follow-up questions.

Instead, Alexander-Scott and Raimondo emphasized that residents should stay home if they feel sick and make sure their family and friends also stay local.

Rhode Island is working on expanding its ability to test more people and get a handle on where the disease has spread, Alexander-Scott said. Respiratory clinics have been set up at urgent care centers and primary care practices that have space set aside solely to see patients with any type of respiratory illness, she said. That allows them to conserve medical equipment and focus on people with symptoms that are severe, she said.

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.