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Rhode Island has begun its economic reopening, with restaurants and retail stores operating under tight restrictions. Public policy is recognizing the new normal — Coronavirus is here to stay, and we cannot return to the status quo until we have a vaccine. I worry about reopening because, as anyone who has gone for a walk in Providence knows, too many people refuse to follow public health guidelines even when we are closed. If reopening is to be a success, we need aggressive political leadership to allow commerce while protecting vulnerable seniors and people with underlying medical conditions
First and foremost, we need immediate policy changes for nursing homes. An early estimate of 314 deaths of people in nursing homes was added to this week by Dr. Scott to be 720 deaths in nursing homes; 45 in assisted living facilities – for a total of 956 deaths – this means 80% of all deaths were people in nursing homes/assisted living facilities. While these environments are extremely difficult in which to control the spread of the virus, there are best practices that could reduce infections and fatalities.
For example, a family friend lives at a private nursing home where no one has contracted Coronavirus. There, the staffing levels have been reduced by half and every worker has their temperature checked three times per day. To prevent asymptomatic but contagious workers from infecting residents, the staff wear medical grade personal protective equipment, including an N95 mask and a face shield. These procedures should be mandatory for all long-term care facilities, regardless of whether they are privately owned or state-run. While the state is facing budgetary shortfalls due to the pandemic, we cannot pinch pennies at the expense of our vulnerable senior citizens.
Second, as Rhode Islanders get back to work, people in high risk groups need to be protected. The number of senior citizens in the workforce has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2019, 20% of adults over 65 were working, compared with 10% in 1985. Three-fourths of these working seniors are unable to work remotely, according to a pre-Coronavirus analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most elderly or otherwise medically vulnerable workers rely on their job for income and cannot retire. They cannot be forced to choose between their life and their livelihood.
The Governor and legislature should create an emergency commission of business owners, medical professionals, and senior citizens. Before the next phase of reopening, this commission should either report actionable steps to protect older workers or determine that they cannot safely return to work. If the workplace cannot be made safe, then these workers need extended unemployment benefits.
(Editor’s Note: One thinks of teachers returning to work, and pensions which have seen retirement ages rise and rise, until a good many of our teachers are over the age of 60 and even 65. High risk by our measure – do we have a plan for them?)
Finally, RIPTA needs stricter rules for bus riders. Currently, 15 people are allowed per bus. While riders have to wear masks, there is no requirement the masks be high-quality or even effective. Neither of these go far enough. Studies show that a closed environment with people close together over a relatively long period of time, like a bus ride from Providence to Newport, is a high-risk environment for spreading Coronavirus. One asymptomatic passenger wearing a homemade could easily infect all fourteen other riders and the driver, who then spread the virus throughout their community. This is a disaster waiting to happen. RIPTA should reduce the maximum number of passengers to ten per bus, sanitize every bus before and after each shift, and install hand sanitizer dispensers in every bus. Bus drivers should give high-quality masks to passengers who do not have one or are wearing a makeshift mask.
Whether you think Rhode Island is reopening too quickly or too slowly, we all have to do our part to make courageous Governor Raimondo’s approach a success. Both our public and economic health both depend on a successful, gradual reopening that doesn’t lead to a surge in Coronavirus cases. Citizens need to follow social distancing rules and wear masks, businesses need to be responsible and encourage working from home, and politicians need to take decisive action to protect the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders.
Ray Rickman, Director and Co-Founder, Stages of Freedom