EAST GREENWICH—The town council held an emergency meeting on Monday to declare a state of emergency in East Greenwich. The declaration of emergency grants town manager Andrew Nota temporary authority to act independently of the town council in matters which relate to the health and benefit of the town in terms of the COVID-19 virus and the town’s response to mitigate its effects.
“Tonight the East Greenwich town council is moving to emergency session in direct response to the complex, everchanging challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Town Council President Mark Schwager said. “Our actions this evening are guided by one overriding consideration: To do whatever is within our power to protect the health, welfare, and safety of our community from a threat that requires an urgent response.”
The emergency ordinance was passed after Governor Gina Raimondo directly requested that all cities and towns in the state declare such an emergency to improve flexibility in handling the rapidly developing situations brought on by the proliferation of COVID-19 in the United States. At the time of this writing, there were 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state according to the governor’s office. Depending on the data being used, this places Rhode Island fifth or sixth highest in the nation in terms of number of confirmed cases per capita.
The emergency ordinance frees Nota to suspend the provisions of any statute, regulation or requirement that would hinder or delay what Nota deems to be necessary action in coping with the emergency. It also authorizes Nota to transfer the direction, personnel and functions of the town numerous departments in order to better facilitate emergency services in such a manner as to protect the health of the town.
Importantly, while the rampant use of terms such as “emergency,” “threat” and “urgent response” have driven some citizens into panic and hoarding, the vast majority of people are not at risk of suffering a serious illness due to COVID-19. Most who become affected with the disease will have common symptoms such as fever, cough and slight shortness of breath, or even have no symptoms at all and act as mere carriers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have stated that “Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.”
In this regard, the effects brought about by communities in response to COVID-19 may well be more destructive than the effects of the virus itself, as residents have continued to strip the shelves of local markets bare, disrupting the ability of those who live paycheck-to-paycheck to purchase the essentials that they need, and harming local economies through mass self-quarantines.
Those who are at increased risk of a serious or life-threatening illness are the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease and chronic respiratory issues such as asthma. People who fall into one or more of these categories should monitor themselves for sign of serious COVID-19 side effects such as bluish lips and face, a new sense of confusion or inability to arouse, persistent pain in the chest or a growing difficulty breathing. Those who experience such symptoms should call their doctor and tell them that they may have the disease.
“We are all mindful of the reality that many of the actions being implemented locally and nationally represent a hardship to the families and businesses of East Greenwich,” Schwager said. “This step has not been taken lightly. And we hope that by taking these actions we can reduce the health risk to our community.”
Disruption, then, is the name of the game, and a large aspect of Nota’s newly found emergency powers will be in managing that disruption and mitigating the worst of its effects and the panic that is all too capable of wasting resources, such as when a resident called emergency services to report a gathering of people in the park over fears of disease transmission, or what might if members of the police or fire departments become affected.
“Residents generally have the mindset that no matter what, rescue is going to show up at their door, or the police department is going to be there or they’ll have other support from the town.”
Nota said. “We have a small department and a limited amount of officers, and we are going to do whatever we can to keep them healthy and on the job.”
Even rescue may be disrupted in this instance, however, and the town council will be seeking volunteers in the coming days and weeks to help with non-skilled community service in easing the burden on emergency services while the town gains access to emergency stockpiles of supplies from the state and focuses on controlling the spread of COVID-19 by implementing a largely virtual workforce.
The emergency ordinance will, in part, allow Nota to direct the town to rapidly developing situations such as those brought about if rescue services are cut short, and is designed primarily to cut away the red tape that would normally bog down action in delays. Nota will be expected to keep the council apprised of his actions in this regard, but will not have to seek the council’s consent to act, and the response to COVID-19 in the town in the coming days will largely be seen as a reflection on Nota’s capacity as manager.
“We are clearly in unprecedented times,” Nota said. “Many of us who have been in town government for 20, 30 plus years, have never really seen this authority exercised at the local level before.”
Council Vice President Mike Donegan highlighted the collaborative involvement of Nota and council leadership in laying the groundwork for the town’s move through such trying times, and expressed that he, Schwager and Nota are participating in daily conference calls with leaders of all municipalities across the state and with the governor’s office to address the crisis. He also clarified the top-down nature of the ordinance.
“I just want everyone to know that this was a specific ask from the state, that every municipality pass this resolution,” Donegan said. “[State government] is anticipating, if the curve doesn’t flatten and things get significantly worse for us, that we are going to need to be able to pivot instantly based on new information. So, the goal is that there is a person who has the ability and authority to pivot.”
Nota is thus far taking the responsibility in stride and has asserted a focus on maintaining governmental support of the community throughout the pandemic scare.
“A lot of people have asked me ‘when is town hall going to close?’ or ‘when are we going to lock up shop?’,” Nota said. “That’s not what we do.”
In keeping with that spirit, Nota has implemented similar measures to those of the state government in beginning the transition towards a more virtual working environment to maintain a continuity of operations across the town government amid increasing disruptions. Raimondo has already shuttered restaurants across the state in an effort to halt the virus from spreading and banned gatherings of 25 or more people, though it has been suggested that that number will be reduced to just 10 in the coming days. Additionally, the police academy has been suspended, and thus the three recruits bound for East Greenwich will be delayed in their training and therefore delayed in arriving to serve the town.
Actions at the state level may also indicate the direction that local governance will go in the coming weeks, as numerous entities have moved to remote work or appointment-only.
Earlier this week Raimondo signed an executive order allowing all Rhode Island public entities to conduct meetings online or over the phone and extending the timeline for public records requests, and also announced that customer-facing services at the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS), Department of Labor and Training (DLT), and HealthSource RI would be moving to online and telephone-only services until further notice. This includes all new applications, renewals, or changes in benefits. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) also announced that licensing road tests will be cancelled through the end of the week. In addition, beginning tomorrow, all DMV satellite offices will be closed, while the Cranston DMV will be suspending personal driver license and registration services through the end of the week. Beginning next Monday, March 23, the DMV will begin taking clients for all services by appointment only.
“A central part of our mission is and remains public safety," said Attorney General Peter Neronha. "We are taking important steps, in line with recommendations by the CDC and RIDOH, to protect our employees and the members of the public that we serve. We remain fully open and able to respond to the public during this time.”
Similarly, Nota has again encouraged residents to sign up for emergency alerts through the town’s website to stay informed of new developments through email or text, and has stressed that, perhaps, the hardest part is waiting.
“Probably the scariest part is that there is no end,” Nota said. “It’s not like a storm where we know there will be an end and we can recover or plan out our recovery.”
“In this particular incident, we are finding the volume of information, the amount of substantive changes that are occurring, and the pace with which they are occurring, is really insurmountable for us to communicate with our population at the level and quality that I am comfortable with,” Nota added.
To that end, Nota has hired a PR firm to control and disseminate town messaging to residents on a regular basis, and stressed that the future of the town would rest in the relationship between its government and its people.
“There’s a lot of work ahead,” Not said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to work with the council and the professional staff and to galvanize our relationship with volunteers throughout the community, because we will need their support moving forward.”
The emergency ordinance will remain in effect until April 15, at which time it will be subject to a vote by the town council to extend to May 15.