WESTERLY — Officials detailed the town's efforts to encourage people from New York in town to take shelter from the COVID-19 outbreak in their second homes to self-quarantine for 14 days and the steps being taken to slow the virus' spread during a news conference at Town Hall Friday afternoon.
Officials also discussed ways to help local businesses and the School Department's distance learning initiative.
Members of the National Guard will soon begin going door-to-door in Watch Hill, Misquamicut, Weekapaug and other parts of the town with seasonal housing to inform those who came from New York of Gov. Gina Raimondo's executive order that they self-quarantine for two weeks, Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said. New York state, where 519 people had died from the virus as of Friday afternoon, has become the epicenter of the disease in the United States.
National Guardsmen and Westerly police officers will also be stationed at the Westerly Train Station and speak to travelers coming from the south to inform them of the self-quarantine order. Efforts to inform pilots using Westerly State Airport are more difficult because there is no set flight schedule and the facility is not staffed around the clock, Lacey said.
Westerly police officers are also being posted near the Pawcatuck Bridge to monitor the number of vehicles with New York license plates coming into town. Additionally, state police troopers will stop motorists from the Empire State to inform them of the order, Lacey said.
While residents have mostly complied with social distancing recommendations, Lacey said, officers have encountered adults who were not complying and groups of children congregating. To parents, Lacey said, "It's your responsibility to take care of your children."
The effort to slow the spread of the virus, which can cause serious respiratory problems that can sometimes be fatal, also include limiting the number of people allowed in large stores such as Wal-Mart and grocery stores to 20% of their maximum capacity allowed under the state fire code. Westerly police are monitoring large stores to ensure compliance, Lacey said.
Amy Grzybowski, the town's emergency management director, said she is in daily communication with Lacey, Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, and personnel with the Westerly Ambulance Corps as well as all of the town's fire districts. Those who think they might have contracted the coronavirus are asked to contact their primary care healthcare provider as "testing is still not readily available," Gryzbowski said.
According to Gryzbowski, Westerly Hospital is fully staffed and has plans to create additional patient capacity if needed.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau could not attend the news conference because of a meeting with school administrators, but he submitted written remarks that Rooney read.
"Two weeks ago today, with the first positive cases of COVID-19 announced, virtually everything about the Westerly Public Schools changed. Since that time, the district's principals, teachers, support staff, students and parents have done an amazing job planning for, and delivering, distance learning, distributing the technology needed to support it, working with local, state and federal agents to ensure that no Westerly child goes hungry, and much more," Garceau said.
Distance learning will continue next week and Raimondo is expected to make an announcement regarding public education plans beyond that on Monday.
Beginning Monday, the Bradford Citizens Club, 124 Woody Hill Road, will begin operating as the school district's third meal-distribution site. Anyone 18 or younger can pick up a meal there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The other two distribution sites are Tower Street School Community Center and Springbrook School. Children do not have to be present when meals are picked up.
Residents and business owners are stepping up to help, said Lisa Konicki, Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce president.
"Just today we had an incredible announcement from two local businesses," Konicki said.
She announced that Lathrop Insurance of Westerly will match, up to $1,000, the amount spent on chamber gift certificates sold on Wednesday and Thursday. The gift certificates are accepted at dozens of businesses throughout the region.
The Andrea Beach Restaurant issued its own challenge initiative, committing to match, up to $2,500, the value of chamber gift certificates sold starting Friday (April 3). The Andrea, which was pounded by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and benefited from the Bring Back the Beach campaign, has also committed to donating $2,500 to Westerly Hospital, Konicki said.
"They're putting their money into this program as basically a 'pay-it-forward,' remembering the generosity of the residents and businesses that stepped up to help them in their time of need," Konicki said.
The virus has forced federal, state and local officials to classify some businesses as "essential" and others as "non-essential," terminology Konicki addressed.
"The Chamber of Commerce and the town of Westerly, if you're a business owner, we want you to know something: We know that your business is essential. Every business in this town is essential, it's owned and run by people in our community, people with families and responsibilities," Konicki said.
Rooney reminded residents that Town Hall is closed but staff are continuing to work and are available by appointment. While limits on transfer station operations have been put in place to help protect workers, Rooney said appointments can be made for special circumstances.
The Town Council is scheduled to meet Monday at 6 p.m. in Town Hall and will start its deliberations on the proposed 2020-21 budget at that time. The meeting will be streamed live and residents will be allowed to participate through the ZOOM digital meeting platform. Information on how to access the meetings electronically is available on the municipal website at http://www.westerlyri.gov/.
Town Council President Christopher Duhamel noted that the budget proposals developed by Rooney and Garceau predate the current public health crisis.
"Everything has changed...the council has a lot of work," Duhamel said.
Duhamel thanked Raimondo and her administration "for helping to protect Westerly in this ever-changing crisis that we're in."
State Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, assured residents that he and the rest of the town's state legislative delegation is working to bring available resources to the town.
"These are very difficult times and unchartered waters we're in, and the situation is very fluid. Things are changing day-to-day and in some cases hour-to-hour," Algiere said.
Officials are focused on public health and safety and are also cognizant of the strain being felt by families and businesses, Algiere said. Town officials also asked residents to be patient and kind.