Council stays the course

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 5:00pm
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During an emergency meeting of the Town Council held Wednesday, April 1, Dr. Mark Clark recognized that there had been rumors about the presence of COVID-19 on the island, but stated again that there had been no confirmed cases here and that “if and when” there is a case, the Medical Center would immediately let people know. “That is not something we would keep a secret,” Clark, who is the director of the Medical Center, said during the meeting.

Clark said the Medical Center had conducted several tests that had negative results. He did say the results of several COVID-19 tests were pending.

Clark also said the island should be aware of potential adverse behavioral issues during this time of isolation, as well. He said there are ways to connect with each other through technology.

“This is a huge stresser. Anxiety or depression or any kind of behavioral health issue will be exacerbated,” Clark said. “We want to be on the lookout for folks that are having a hard time with this. If you now someone who is struggling, have them contact us.”

The council also spent a significant amount of time, with input from New Shoreham Police Chief Vin Carlone, discussing a dilemma: a growing frustration among island workers about not being able to go to work, and what to do about the imminent influx of seasonal workers that help businesses and homes get ready for the summer season. Carlone suggested to the council that this was the most serious threat to the island, an assessment shared by Interim Town Manager Jim Kern and the members of the council.

Carlone and the council also were aware that island residents not working were going around the island to check on workers who may have been working when they should not have been.

Carlone said one homeowner had been cited for doing work on his own property, but he cautioned the council about enacting new ordinances that needed enforcement by local officers, and to ensure that whatever new ordinance preventing people from working was fair to everyone. He said he had received seven calls about people breaking the rules of the emergency ordinance, which was initially passed two weeks ago. A revised version went into effect on March 24.

Although the councilors recognized the frustration and anger among those barred from working because they are not essential workers, the council at the Wednesday meeting decided not to loosen restrictions included in the emergency ordinance just yet.

“This virus has not peaked in Rhode Island. I’d hate to see something go south,” said Second Warden André Boudreau. “I think as the weeks and the days go by we will see more tightening coming from the state and federal [governments].” All the councilors said they had received emails and calls from out of work islanders, but Boudreau added “our concern is the protection the health and the wellbeing of our neighbors.”

“I recognize why people want to change the ordinance, people living paycheck to paycheck,” said Councilor Sven Risom. He asked a rhetorical question: “Is mowing the fields alone any more dangerous than walking six feet apart?”

“People have spent more time driving around looking for people who are working than they would have spent on a job site,” said Councilor Martha Ball.

Ball suggested, since the situation continued to evolve on a daily basis, that the council meet every week to discuss new issues, an idea the rest of the council endorsed. At the meeting on Wednesday, the only person present was First Warden Ken Lacoste. Others on the phone aside from Carlone and Ball, were councilors Chris Willi, Risom, Boudreau, town solicitor Kathy Merolla, Interim Town Manager Jim Kern, Dr. Clark, Building Official Marc Tillson, New Shoreham Det/ Paul Deane, and town Emergency Management co-directors Bill McCombe and Pete Gempp. The council will meet again next week.

“It’s a good plan to meet weekly,” said interim Town Manager Jim Kern. “This is going to go on a number of weeks, if not a number of months.” He said it was the council’s job to “provide the best living circumstances for the people who live out here.”

The council will tackle the issue of the seasonal workers who come to the island about this time each year at a future meeting.

For his part, at the meeting, Clark said the fight to keep the virus off the island was at a critical stage. “We are entering the steep part of the curve,” said Clark. “It is increasing exponentially. This should not be alarming. This is what we expected.” There were 488 confirmed cases in the state at the time of the meeting. That number jumped into the 500s by Thursday morning, and will also be increased by the time The Block Island Times is distributed on Friday, April 3.

Clark also said that it may be a good idea for people to start wearing facemasks. He said the Centers for Disease Control was about to announce that wearing masks may help prevent the spread of the virus. Clark said the data shows that people can be infected for up to two days without showing any symptoms. (See related story on page 4.)

“We may want to keep that in mind for out here,” Clark said about wearing masks. “I think the message for the most part is to keep our vigilance up and not let our guard down. It would be a mistake if we let our guard down.”

Clark once again said, “if anyone has a problem with a new infection or is ill please reach out to us so we can keep everyone on the island safe.”

Clark said that any announcement of a confirmed case would immediately be forwarded to the Town Council and posted on the town’s website, the Medical Center website and other forms of social media. The Block Island Times will also post updated information.

Lacoste announced that the Block Island Grocery had cut back its hours due to ongoing concerns about some customers not adhering to the rules of social distancing. The grocery will now be closed on Sunday and its hours are now 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Seniors will be able to shop from 9 to 10 a.m. The new hours went into effect Friday, April 3.

“Rules at the BIG are being ignored by certain parties and they asked me to tell everyone that is practicing social distancing, ‘Thank you’ and for the other folks that have been ignoring the rules, knock it off, to quote Gina Raimondo,” said Lacoste.

Lacoste said that the “rules are put in place for the safety of you, the public, and for the people working at the grocery store. We’re very fortunate to have these services and if we have a problem with contagion out here those services might have to be closed.”

“Things are not normal,” said Lacoste. “Things are crazy. This is a place we have not been before. Please cooperate with these folks at these places. Please take that into serious consideration and modify your behavior accordingly.”