WESTERLY, R.I. — At a time when life and work and routines are changing every day, Rhode Islanders awoke Saturday to this: The sight of National Guardsmen, in camouflage and surgical masks, tracking down and corralling dangerous interlopers: New Yorkers.
On the orders of Governor Gina M. Raimondo, people escaping from the Big Apple to Little Rhody to avoid the coronavirus outbreak won’t get off easy: They have to self-quarantine for two weeks and provide personal contact information to the state Health Department.
Those who fail to isolate themselves face fines and, for repeat offenders, a possible jail sentence.
The National Guard, State Police, and local officers were out in force Saturday to implement the order, swarming bus and train stations, highway rest stops, and even coastal neighborhoods, going door-to-door, looking for New York residents who believe they will be safer in Rhode Island as New York’s outbreak grows exponentially, with more than 50,000 cases and 2,000 deaths.
They found one couple, refugees from Westchester County, in their cozy hideaway on Atlantic Avenue near Misquamicut State Beach, along with the woman’s 22-year-old daughter from Virginia. When the pair saw a National Guardsman and Westerly police officer outside, they pulled out their defense: a March 14 receipt from the local Home Depot to prove that they had already been in the state for two weeks, and therefore shouldn’t have to be quarantined any longer.
They found a friendly ear in Westerly Officer Matthew Hayden, who was accompanied by National Guard Tech Sergeant Timothy Williams. This neighborhood was Hayden’s beat, and he had already noticed their car and knew they had been there since mid-March.
So he took down their names, dates of birth, and addresses, and handed them a packet of information about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. (They declined to give the Globe their names because their employers don’t let them talk to the media.)
Despite their two-week stint in Rhode Island already, the family plans to stay inside, hunkered down with their elderly dog, leaving their house only to shop for food. But Hayden warned them that if they drove with New York plates, State Police would pull them over. "You can tell them you’ve already had contact with the Westerly Police Department if they want to call and confirm,” Hayden said.
As they headed back inside, the man said he’d make copies of the material in the packet and keep a copy on the dashboards of both of their vehicles to prove he had already met with police.
Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said officers would look for New York license plates at about 1,000 homes, keeping an eye out for cars with the front plate removed whose owners had backed them into their driveways. Officers also are contacting hotels and motels.
Meanwhile, on I-95 northbound, Rhode Island State Police and the National Guard were camped out at the rest area between Exits 2 and 3, stopping all vehicles with New York plates, to go through the same routine: tell them to self-quarantine for two weeks while in Rhode Island, and record their personal information.
Similar scenes are occurring on Route 165 in Exeter, Route 78 in Westerly, and at the Pell Bridge in Newport, according to State Police Superintendent James Manni. On Friday, when the procedure began, troopers stopped 190 vehicles.
The policy prompted an annoyed Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, to threaten to sue Rhode Island; he called the stops “unconstitutional” and “a reactionary policy” in an interview on CNN on Saturday night. However, it appeared he had the details wrong, telling anchor Ana Cabrera that the state was “not letting anyone in until they take a test to see whether or not they have the virus,” which is not the policy.
National Guard public affairs officer Captain Mark Incze said the New Yorkers are understanding, although nervous. “Overall, people are kind of uncomfortable, not at ease with the state of the nation,” he said. “Obviously, people leaving New York are in a state of being frightened, and [getting] the contacts takes a little longer.”
Manni agreed. "We are very careful not to violate anyone’s constitutional rights,” he said. “The troopers are professional and patient. We recognize there is a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety. ... The people from New York totally understand.”
The Westerly family is a case in point. New York was “going crazy,” they said. They feel safe here, even as the number of Rhode Island cases continues to grow, and the state recorded its first two deaths over the weekend. They believe Rhode Island is about two weeks behind New York in the spread of the illness.
So the three of them have settled into their house near the ocean, with their old dog in his bed in the living room, working from their light-filled home, watching the waves. New York seems far away.
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at email@example.com