Filippi talks business and what reopening may look like

Tue, 05/05/2020 - 12:45pm

Republican House Leader Blake Filippi, R-Dist. 36, answered questions from the Block Island business community during an event sponsored by the Block Island Chamber of Commerce on Monday, May 4.

Here is a link to a video of the conference call:

Here is a transcript of that conversation as provided by Rep. Filippi’s office.

Q: How does/will the Governor's reopening plan guidelines impact the Block Island ferry? Are they subject to "gatherings of 50" rule? Or just social distancing regs?

A: We’ve had extensive discussions with the Governor’s office about this, as well as Interstate. We believe the ferry should not be considered a gathering. Rather it is a mode of transportation, not subject to the 50 person limit, but it must be able to maintain proper social distancing. Interstate is developing plans to responsible service the island, and we have full faith in their ability to responsibly continue their lifeline service. 

Q: In Phase 3, "travel restrictions" are mentioned, but not explained. Are travel restrictions in place during Phase 1 and 2?  If so, what are they?  

A: We are awaiting more guidance from the Governor on these restrictions. As we receive this information, we will keep you updated. I think we can anticipate significant travel restrictions still in phase one and we should have clarity sometime this week as to what they are.

Q: Part of my Real Estate business on Block Island includes an extensive private home rental component. To date, I have not heard much discussion about hotels, inns, bed and breakfast operations or private rental homes.  For the month of June, we have 122 short stay (7 days or less) home rentals scheduled.  Tenants hail from all over the country, with a high percentage of customers coming from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.  Does the governor's contemplated plan restrict this type of travel and occupancy?  

A: So, we discussed the potential travel restrictions in the prior question. Occupancy, from what we know so far, does not restrict home rentals. Obviously, if there are travel restrictions people would have to comply, but with hotels a lot of the limitations are on the town level not the state level. As we open things up I think everyone needs to have a plan in place for disinfecting and cleaning. We've put together recommendations which are included in this email. It is a comprehensive list for your business outlining the things you should be looking at in order to safely open. When we're talking about restaurants and B&Bs and hairdressers --those are things that may be coming online in phase one in varying degrees. In order to reopen, you're going to have to have a plan in place. We suggest you look through these recommendations and develop a plan that works for your business, because there's going to be some loosening of restrictions in phase one and you want to be ready. The governor is going to have more information for us this week.

Q. Our farmer’s market usually operates on Wednesdays and Saturdays beginning in late June and ending first weekend of October.  We have 50 members that participate in Saturday markets at Legion Park.  Though I have never counted, my estimate would be on our busiest days, the market sees 200-300 visitors come and go between 9:00-11:30am on those days. With the governor's guidelines as they were stated "group gatherings limit 50 people or less" -- is the only way to continue to operate by cutting our vendors (perhaps consumable goods only?) And having someone doing a count at an entrance point? As our state representative, and someone who has been to the market before, what is your advice for proceeding with this Block Island tradition?  Can we do it, & how?

A: So as to that, the farmers markets have remained open on the mainland and they haven't been part of the forced closures. To our knowledge, grocery stores, etc. that stayed open have the per person limits, which do not included staff. We’ve reached out to the Governor’s Office to see if they come forward with new regulations. But as it stands now, vendors are excluded from the 50-person limit now because the farmers markets are outside. Obviously it should be a different calculation when you're meeting outside as opposed to inside building, in my opinion. I think there should be larger crowds allowed outdoors than in closed areas so they're going to need to supply us with more information. I think it's important to note that any any plans going forward will most likely exclude vendors from that 50-person limit and we're going to work hard to make sure that that applies to the Block Island farmers markets.

I think we've got to proceed with the Farmer’s Market as it is one of the best parts of Block Island. I think we just have to sit tight and all of us should be communicating with the Governor about this issue. After this meeting we're going to be sharing the Governor's contact info, and also Senators Reed, Whitehouse and Representative Langevin, as it relates to a later question dealing with PPP funds, but it's important from for everyone upstate to hear not just from your representatives and senators and Town Council members, but also from you, the people on the ground that these decisions affect. We have to make sure that the farmers market can be successful this year as long as it can be safely managed.

Q: Will mopeds businesses still be able to have 35 mopeds each on the road (175 mopeds)? Curious about this because of our already strained Medical Center with the COVID virus.

A: So that would be up to the Town Council and the operators. In full disclosure, I am an operator. I've been an operator for a long time and the moped technology is much better these days and as a result the amount of accidents is much less than it used to be. With that being said the Medical Center really hasn't had a rush because of COVID. If there becomes a point in the summer where the medical center is overburdened because of COVID, I think those are conversations that have to happen with the moped operators who have a solid working relationship with the town. I think everyone will do what is necessary to preserve public health on Block Island.

Q: Does the State of RI have a rollout plan for businesses – meaning when each can open during each phase? For example; stores, hairdresser, hotels, eat in restaurants, etc.

A: So they're developing phase one and we're going to hear this week. We know that during phase one there’s to be a limited opening of restaurants and hairdressers etc and office space. We're going to have information within the next couple days about that. It's really phase two which I think is most important to Block Island because if everything goes well we will be in phase two around the 24th of May and I think that's the most critical time. If everything goes well, we'll be in phase three the first or second week of June so that's what we're really focusing on for Block Island, in figuring out how to do phase two and phase three in a safe and responsible manner. In phase one there'll be limited openings, not many of which I think are relevant to Block Island at this time, given the Town Council's ordinance which we're all following, but you will see a gradual opening and hopefully everything goes according to plan and there isn't an uptick in infections or hospitalizations so we can get the phase two and phase three.

Q: Talk to us about what it means to Rhode Islanders that we are now in a Depression, according to Len Lenardo, Economics professor from URI. He said that the state has depended too much on tourism and gambling and we need move toward a knowledge based economy.

A: here's some pretty staggering numbers that have come out this past week that there are more Rhode Islanders in the labor force who are not working than those who are working. That is a mind-boggling unemployment rate. Len is correct that we do need to have a more diversified economy but tourism and hospitality is the goose that has laid the golden egg for a long time in this state we need to make sure we support this industry while at the same time encouraging more manufacturing and high-tech businesses. That's something we've been calling for, for a long time with targeted tax policy towards entire industries instead of the current policy where they've been giving state subsidies to specific businesses. We think we need to target industries as a whole so everyone can take advantage of government programs, but certainly we have to support our tourism. It’s what keeps our state going. We have to get it back on its feet as soon as it's reasonably we're able to do so in a safe manner.

Q: Do the people of Block Island have any say regarding the ferry boat, that they don’t overwhelm us with people this summer, same with the marinas?

A: So I think everyone has a say. The Town Council has a say, the individuals have a say -- really it's going to come down to the Governor and the PUC who will make the ultimate decision, but I know they're very cognizant of the way Block Island feels about issues and they're going to listen to us. We all do have a say in this, and in my conversations with interstate navigation the public health department, Block Island is their primary concern and so I think that if we all stay in contact, we'll find something that works for most everybody. Everyone certainly does have a say and I strongly suggest you reach out to the Governor via the information we're going to provide to you.

Q: Mr. Filippi, what are you optimistic about in this environment?

A: I think what I'm most optimistic about is that hundreds of millions of Americans, some who are at low risk for this disease, stayed at home at great personal sacrifice to protect those people that they don't know. I think it shows the goodness of our country and that we are in this Together -- and that if we all continue to work together we're going to come out on the other side better for it.

Q: The Governor has her restrictions and her III phases. Block Island Town Council has been more restrictive with their rules. Is that legal? Are most towns imposing stricter rules?

A: So other towns have imposed more restrictive guidelines in the state -- I believe Barrington and Bristol have on the East Bay. As to the legality of it I think the town has been reasonable, but I'm not going to offer a legal opinion on whether it is legal or not what the town is done. I'm happy to see the town being very responsible in opening things up slowly and methodically. We've seen that over the past couple weeks. I anticipate that on Wednesday there's going to be a robust discussion about opening things up even more, but they definitely have their best interests in the public health of Block Island. I won't offer legal opinion on whether they can do it as I believe there's a substantial argument that they can and I'm happy to see that they're taking that responsibility seriously and being deliberative.

Q: What official guidelines should we be following besides the CDC, the RI Department of Health?

A: So in terms of official guidelines, obviously the Town of New Shoreham should follow the CDC and the Department of Health, as they are the gold standard. But in addition, every business should have a plan for safely reopening and you’ll see the checklist we put together as a template for a plan of action. We also have a comprehensive COVID-19 resource list on our Caucus website that is updated daily

Q: Governor Raimondo still has the restriction of out of state travel, meaning you have to quarantine does that continue to 5/8. Are the rules different for out of state travel? That also will greatly impact us on the island, if so.

A: Yes. So until May 8th, the two-week quarantine is still applicable. We anticipate in phase one there's going to be loosening of restrictions on business travel and we're not totally sure as to what states that's going to apply to. Obviously I think travel from New York may be viewed differently than tourist who travel to Rhode Island from Vermont, but the two-week restriction will stay in place and she's going to be announcing the phase 1 restrictions this week but we can expect significant travel restrictions to stay in during phase 1.

Q: Can the town force us to comply to any rules they make? Do they have the power to shut my business down? Will I have to sign something?

A: So I'll just go back to my previous answer. I'm not going to offer a legal opinion on the town's policies. I think they've been reasonable, but if you think there's a legal issue you should really talk to your lawyer, and that's not me.

Q: Will the state be willing to compensate businesses for the masks, gloves and sanitizer we have to buy?

A: Most likely not, as the state is facing budget calamity this year. They are around $750 million dollars short in state revenues starting next fiscal year, beginning July 1st, so I don't think anyone should expect any type of aid from the state, unfortunately.

Q: Why would Gov. Raimondo have kept guns stores open in the state especially with the threat of domestic violence increasing?

A: I think it comes down to the Second Amendment being a fundamental right and we've seen a dramatic decrease in violence since early March when the stay at home orders came into effect. We’ve experienced very, very low gun crime. I'm sure if there was a spike the Governor would have looked at that decision again, but you've seen actually a dramatic decrease in violence in the state, which has been a good thing. I just think the Governor understands that you can't close down something where there is a fundamental right involved. Now, that also raises a lot of questions about why churches are shut, but maybe that's a conversation for another day.

Q: MA, and CT have stay at home ban in place until 5/20; NY and NJ don’t have a date yet. Are Block Islanders in a dangerous situation after 5/8 since we will be open and a very popular tourist destination? Or do out-of-staters still have to quarantine?

A: So like I said, the Governor's going to announce further information about phase One. We can say that in early March we all did our part to stay home to flatten the curve, and that was to enable the state to ramp up its hospital capabilities. In early March, we urgently needed around 200 ventilators. We've built three field hospitals since then, with thousands of beds and thousands of ventilators, so I'm confident that the state's able to handle a surge. There's always going to be a risk until this is taken care of --until there's a vaccine or there's herd immunity, but I think that now that we have developed the capabilities to handle a surge, we can start loosening the reins. And we can do it responsibly. I don't think that we can say there's never a risk when we start opening things up on May 8th , but I'm confident the state has developed, through the Governor's leadership, the infrastructure to handle any type of any type of surge.

Q: Please clear up the 50 person social gathering rule, is this for people on the beach, or a park only?  We are concerned as a restaurant for the following reasons. 1) If the Fire Marshall allows 100 persons – Can I social distance the patrons on the porch and the lawn equaling 100 persons? or 2) is this restaurant held to the 50 person rule and would that include wait staff in the 50 person count?

A: I think the Governor is going to have to design some type of accommodation for outside seating. You clearly don't have the same problems with transmission in an outside setting, so I believe there's going to be some type of accommodation. As soon as they have information we're going to convey that to everyone. It's the same thing with a farmers market --it's outside or shouldn't be limited the same extent as a restaurant with indoor seating. Be creative about finding a way to have more outside seating, if this type of accommodation is available.

Q: Do you recommend cancelling J1 employees?

A: So that's up to individual businesses. I know some businesses have obtained mainland housing for their staff until it's safe to bring down to Block Island. However, many J-1s are coming internationally and I don't know what the restrictions are from those individual countries. The United States has different restrictions in different countries. I know in our business we had a lot of problems with our international people, where we had to cancel most of our international staff coming here. We were able to obtain some mainland accommodations until it's safe to bring people here to Block Island. I can't tell you what to do, I just think if your employees are coming international you, might not want to rely on them for this season.

Q: We own a restaurant on Block Island and we have applied for PPP funds as we realized that even when we are open this summer we expect to be doing a small fraction of the business we usually do. While the PPP concept works for some businesses it is a hard fit for restaurants, especially seasonal ones.  We currently do not have an opening date from the State and the clock for using the PPP funds starts as soon as you receive the loan. For businesses that are not currently open this makes using these funds impossible and not helpful. However, we could not wait on applying as the funds quickly run out. Is there a way that we can tailor the PPP funds to our needs (the restaurant industry) to help us get through this season? Using these funds to help payroll and expenses when we are open for business during our high season of July and August will help offset the restrictions that we will be operating under and allow us to pay our staff even with lower revenue....which is what the PPP was created for!

A: That's probably one of the best questions, so as you know PPP must be used for payroll and some can be used for rent. They just came out with more guidance in that it just has to be used for payroll. It clearly is an issue where people obtain PPP funds and they're not legally allowed to be open. I think there needs to be an accommodation from the Small Business Administration and after this call I'm going to be reaching out to our federal delegation to see if they can adopt regulations that the eight week period begins when you open up --and you're lawfully allowed to open up -- not eight weeks from when you receive the monies. We are sharing the federal delegation contac information and I encourage everyone to reach out to explain the unique circumstances we are under here on Block Island. I want to see if an accommodation can be made where you were not able to be lawfully open. I hope we can achieve that accommodation. Remember that under the PPP funds, the portion that's not used for payroll will be turned into a low interest loan…I understand it is not ideal and we prefer grants. I just hope we can convince the SBA to change its regulations because it is really harming people out here if the 8 week clock has already started.

Q: When do you expect we will be able to expect new guidelines and policies for opening our Inn? Such as housecleaning policies, check-in policies, social distancing, wearing masks, staff PPE equipment, etc. It would be great to get some guidelines for opening that all businesses can adhere to.

A: So every business is going to have to have some type of plan and that plan is going to be individualized. The Governor may be coming out with specific recommendations. It's not clear yet what she's going to be doing. We don't know what the regulations are going to be. I assume there's going to some. I strongly recommend you start planning now. At the Manisses, we're obtaining an electrostatic fogger that will disinfect everything, so when you clean the room the last thing you do is you go through with this fogger and it makes sure that any microbes or organisms are gone and we're making sure that that's done every time there's a turnover. We haven't gotten the regulations yet, but we're assuming it's going to happen and even if it doesn't happen, I think our guests are going to want to be sure that they're staying in a safe place. Check out the reopening plan checklist we're sending you because there's a lot of items that will make you think about how to open up your business. I don't know if there's going to be regulations, but even if there's not, I think everyone's got to do their part -- just for the customers.

Q. When do you expect the housing inspections to occur and how is this being handled?

A: So if you're talking about the minimum housing inspections to get your rooming house license, stay tuned to the Town Council meeting on Wednesday. I think it should proceed immediately because there's a backlog there's a lot of work to do to get every place inspected. They don't necessarily have to issue the licenses once the inspection is done, but we don't want there to be a six month window where they can't get inspections done and licenses legally can be obtained. The town is going to be meeting this Wednesday and it's certainly something we want to button up and start the process.

Q: Will hotels on Block Island be allowed to open for Memorial Day weekend which begins on Friday, May 22nd?

A: Under state guidelines, it's going to be up to the town. I don't know that they're going to loosen it up at that point. I don't know that there's going to be people who are looking to vacation at that point, but it's going to be up to the town council under the state guidelines.

Q: We are concerned that the governor has already indicated to 2020 wedding guests that social gathers will be restricted for the summer. Due to this many weddings have canceled. Surely the 4 phase rules should be applied across the board.

A: I don't know what they're going to come up with in terms of outdoor venues. The Governor seems to say that outdoor gatherings are going to have significant restrictions, specifically she focused on the concerts in Newport. Whether that's going to be limited to 50 people I don't know. I think it has to be based on the science and I think the science says that outside venues may not be at the same risk of transmission, but if you're in a tent I don't know if that applies. I think that the 50 person gathering is something we all should pretty much bank on for this season. We've had to cancel a bunch of weddings too. I know it's happening everywhere and it's tough.

Q: We want to be reassured that tented weddings outdoors are given equal rights to service our customers when the numbers are increased in beyond phase 3.

A: I'm sorry. I don't have that answer.

Q. You mentioned guidelines from the state over the next several days and having a plan will allow inns and B&B’s to open.  Will there be a template provided and will they need to be reviewed and approved by the state or the town or is it “just have a plan.”

A: Reviewed and approved by the state is over the top, or is it just have a plan in place? I think you just need to have a plan. Even if there aren't requirements, nor are there application processes, I think you do need to have a plan. There may be further requirements or you have to submit it to the Department of Health or the town, so I don't know. I don't know what the state's going to require and I don't know what the town's going to require, but even if they don't require anything, I think you have to have a plan as a business owner.

Q: If the state will not be able to provide businesses with masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, PPE, etc. where will businesses be able to purchase these items to protect our staff and our guests?

A: So there's a lot of places that are selling PPE now. You can find some deals out there, especially if you don't need it now. We found some on the internet with delivery four to six weeks out and we've ordered, it so I think you have to you have to start planning. The state's not going to provide PPE. We need our stocks for our hospitals. so I would suggest really digging in on the internet now and ordering it, knowing that there's a pretty big lead time, because a lot of it has to come over internationally --we're not producing much here.

Q: What is your understanding of the 50 person limit in the case of a business that has a larger capacity and could potentially have more than 50 guests indoors while maintaining 6 foot social distancing?

A: They have not given any clarification yet, they just haven't. I think the concern is that okay you have enough space to keep six feet apart, but that may not happen when you're going up to the bar to buy a drink, so I think the concern is that they just want crowds limited, even if you have plenty of space because people are going to be walking by each other and bumping into each other. They haven't come out with any more clarification on it and they will be soon, but I do wish we had more, more guidance from the Governor's office and she knows she has to provide it. I think they're just waiting for more data to come in because the summer really is still two months out and I don't think they want to make a decision now that they can't back away from.

Q: Where did you get your fogger?

A: Here is a list of electrostatic sprayer brands that we considered using at the Hotel Manisses for disinfecting our property between guest visits:

Electrostatic sprayers

Q. Did you also research UV lighting?

A: We looked into UV lighting, but for the amount of space we needed to disinfect we did not find UV lighting to be efficient.

Q: Should there be any limitations to the Farmer’s Market?

A: I'm not a scientist, I know my lane. I don't have any data that would enable me to make a reasonable recommendation. I think that the Governor's office should be coming out with guidelines, but I don't know. I can't give you my opinion because it's not my industry. I don't know the data, so I don't want to talk out of school.

Thanks to all for your participation and support of one another during this challenging time.

Please know I am at your service should any other questions or issues pop up.

Blake Filippi

(401) 744-2242