The first big summer weekend is here on Block Island, opening without the usual fanfare of fireworks and parades and steak fries. Those were the traditional sights and sounds and aromas of the July Fourth Weekend.
What apparently will not change is the enthusiasm people have for this island community in the summer, as leaders in the tourism industry and on the municipal side expect the island to be busy.
There are also untraditional symbols that highlight what the First Warden called a Fourth of July “unlike any other:” Facemasks, signs about wearing a facemask, signs about reminding people that we are a small town with a little medical center are abundant.
And there is no question that some islanders who have been experiencing the shutdown on the island since March are nervous about the numbers of people coming over from the mainland.
When the first wave of travelers arrived and landed, red flags popped up everywhere about the numbers of people coming off the boat not wearing face coverings of any kind. The Town Council quickly passed an ordinance requiring the wearing of masks while outside and when people are not able to comfortably physically distance themselves from each other. Facemask wearing demonstrably has increased since then, but it is not near the levels residents would like to see.
That being said, Block Island has opened up to Phase Three, and those that keep the peace out here, and those that regulate business are welcoming visitors, with a few 2020 caveats.
“I’d like to welcome everyone to the island this summer, which is unlike any other. We’re hoping residents and visitors help us in keeping Block Island healthy and Covid-safe,” said First Warden Ken Lacoste. “The town has done a lot to educate and set a good example for everyone who comes to visit. Now it’s up to you to respect each other, wash your hands, wear masks, and social distance as much as possible, especially downtown in our businesses and our eateries. If we all work together we can make this a fun summer after that dreary, worrisome spring. Thank you, everyone.”
Capt. Tracy Fredericks heads up the Volunteer Rescue Squad, and she said so far this year too many patients they are seeing have not been wearing masks, so her message was clear: “Everybody put a mask on. Be careful. Pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s going to be busy. Make good choices.”
Jessica Willi, Director of the Tourism Council, urged compliance on everyone’s part because it could mean the difference of having just a busy weekend and then having to restrict travel and business if the numbers of cases go in the wrong direction.
“So the message is be respectful and be responsible. It makes me so happy when I drive through town and see people wearing masks. It sets a tone. It sends a message, regardless of whether they agree with the rules or not. It’s just respectful,” said Willi. “We know people are coming, so it’s important to the community that we are responsible and respectful. When I say the community, that means everybody from people who have been here once to people who have lived here their whole lives and have never left the island. We’re talking about everybody who loves Block Island.”
Harbormaster Capt. Kate McConville wants everyone to “have a wonderful time. New Harbor is busy, but we welcome you and we’ll find a safe spot. Be respectful and have a great time.
She reminded boaters that there are still some rules, including a 5 mph limit in both harbors and boating under the influence will not be tolerated. McConville also said a 10 p.m. noise ordinance is in effect, adding there have already been some complaints in Old Harbor about excessive noise after 10 p.m.
“Be respectful of your neighbors. As fun as it may seem, Water Street doesn’t want to hear Lionel Richie at any time of day,” said McConville, with half a wink. “We will also be doing boater under the influence stops with the United States Coast Guard throughout the weekend and the Rhode Island State Police will be on call to assist the Harbors Department through the holiday.”
“The message is we want people to come and come safely,” said Bill McCombe, Interstate Navigation’s Director of Security. “We know that while people are on vacation they relax but everyone should still remain vigilant about protecting themselves and others around them. If we all do that together we’ll have a safe and happy Fourth of July.”
Police Chief Vin Carlone doesn’t want to hear any fireworks, now that the official town fireworks display has been cancelled. (As has the Fourth of July parade.)
“The cancelling of the fireworks creates the probability of people bringing their own, which is very dangerous, especially with a dry spell we’ve had, not to mention potential injuries to people,” said Carlone. “Most fireworks are illegal in Rhode Island, and fireworks obviously do not mix with alcohol.”
Carlone had another worry on his mind: “I’m also concerned with these backpack-clad millennial groups making a resurgence here on Block Island. We have all worked hard to turn this into a family destination. I hope we are not going in the wrong direction. I also want to point out that if we send a message to tourists and visitors that Block Island is more restrictive with respect to COVID-19, and if that in fact discourages people from coming, who will we be discouraging? It certainly isn’t discouraging millenials with liquor in their backpacks. I hope it is not discouraging families because we do not want to trade families for these individuals. We experienced that once and it was very difficult to reverse that trend.”
Cindy Lasser, President of the Chamber of Commerce, has a front row seat to the visitors coming to Block Island. Her office is located in Old Harbor and she and her staff are among the first people to see passengers get off the boat.
“I want everyone to come and visit all our businesses with a mask and social distancing,” Lasser said, “But have a good time. We are very much looking toward everyone coming out here.”